Uber & Lyft Driver Harassment

Passengers Harassing Drivers – Uber and Lyft’s General Response — or Lack Thereof


Uber is in the news again today. After a CNN investigation, Uber has decided to stop forcing passengers who are victims of sexual assault by Uber drivers into mandatory forced binding arbitration. This means the victims claims can now be heard in a real courtroom, as opposed to a Soviet Union style kangaroo court known as the Arbitration Association of America, where Uber has systemic advantages, and rarely loses. Tony West, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer, noted, “We think it is very, very important to allow survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment the control and agency that was, frankly, stripped from them in that incident.”

We contacted Uber to ask if they will be dropping mandatory, forced, binding arbitration for other disputes involving riders or drivers. Uber’s spokesperson responded that, “few experiences deprive an individual of control more than sexual assault or sexual harassment and we want to give them a choice to restore even a small amount of that.” While expansion of this policy is not currently on the table, Uber’s spokesperson said, “we’re always reviewing our policies and will continue to do so going forward.”

While Uber’s decision is a good step in the right direction, both Uber and Lyft still have a serious problem not only with drivers harassing or assaulting passengers, but passengers harassing and assaulting drivers.

No matter what kind of public job you have, there’s an extremely good chance that you’ll deal with harassment in your work life, especially if you’re a woman. In one study, about 60 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point, and 69 percent of those women say they experienced it in their work life, meaning that a full 40 percent of women reported workplace harassment in that study. Look outside that oft-cited statistic, however, and you’ll find that many low-paying service jobs have much higher rates of harassment, with as many as 90 percent of women in the restaurant industry reporting sexual harassment. It’s something that’s awful, but which happens frequently, and the worst thing is – it’s something that women have just learned to deal with.

Much of the time, women don’t report harassment when they experience it, and if they do report it, it’s kind of anyone’s guess as to whether anything will be done about the situation. That’s one of the most important aspects of workplace harassment, and it’s why Lyft and Uber are consistently under such scrutiny about how they address the issue during their rides. There are endless stories that female drivers have shared about rideshare harassment, and it’s awful — but the issue is, it’s constant.

Of course, Uber and Lyft have official stances that condemn sexual assault. Uber even has a page on their website about how they’re working to stop sexual assault in the rideshare industry, and Lyft keeps their PR just as clean, with a page on safety and how they attempt to stop these assaults before they happen. If you’re just looking at the official statements, it seems pretty good. After all, they’re doing what they can to keep their passengers safe, right?

Or maybe not. With all the harassment claims, an important pattern has emerged, and it’s the same pattern that has emerged in every other workplace. Uber and Lyft just don’t take these accusations seriously, and many people have come away from reporting harassment extremely let-down by their experience. Despite their claims of taking accusations of sexual assault seriously, Uber and Lyft just haven’t, leaving both passengers and drivers with the feeling that these rideshares just don’t care about them. Add that to the fact that the actual management tends to be pretty sexist, and it’s clear they’re not exactly setting things up to be great for their company or their customers.

So, what’s really going on? What’s the best way to stop sexual assault? Read on to get the full picture of harassment in the rideshare industry, and how to stop it — both on our part and on the company’s.

How Frequent Is Rideshare Harassment, Really?

If you rely solely on how often headlines report on things, everyone is at constant risk of being murdered, and every celebrity is constantly in jail. That’s just how the news works; people like to read about horrible incidents, and so these stories make up a huge chunk of the overall stories. In fact, we just don’t know how frequent rideshare harassment is. The few people who have tried to understand harassment experienced on Lyft and Uber rides, both drivers and passengers, have run into a significant amount of issues. Police don’t keep records of how many assault cases are on taxis or rideshare services, and of course, harassment is routinely underreported, meaning that there’s no real way of judging its frequency. Who’s Driving You keeps a list of reported harassment and assault cases, but they’re very clear on their mission — to promote taxis.

Therefore, we really only have anecdotal evidence when it comes to understanding rideshare assault cases. Uber states that less than 170 customer service tickets reported any kind of assault, but of course, they’re in the business of making their company look good. Especially with their fairly terrible track record, it’s hard to take their claims at face value. They also rightly mention that some users go directly to the police with their concerns, circumventing their complaints system entirely. In addition, they state they’ve contacted everyone who submitted a complaint directly referencing experiencing harassment — though, with all of the anecdotal evidence regarding their response rate, it’s hard to take that at face value either.

The other thing to take into account is the rates of harassment or assault between rideshares and taxis. Despite what many people would think from just headlines, the only investigations that have existed — which, to be fair, are few and far between — have turned up a similar rate of assault between rideshares and for-hire rides. One, conducted by the city of Austin regarding a few months’ time, showed five allegations of assault against Uber drivers, two against Lyft drivers, and three against taxicab drivers.

Regardless of the comparison between Uber, Lyft, and taxis, however, there are still an unacceptable amount of allegations — enough for a class action lawsuit. Whether this should also be happening for taxis is something that nobody seems to have enough information for, but clearly, there’s a problem. People are angry, and it shows in the dozens of blog posts, articles, and opinion pieces about it.

Passengers harassing Lyft and Uber drivers

What Are Lyft and Uber Doing About It?

So then comes the big question: how do Lyft and Uber respond to these complaints? Again, just looking at their PR, they seem to be responding well. After public allegations of sexism at Uber’s headquarters, they responded with an “urgent investigation,” instructing their human resources department to look into these allegations and hopefully fix them. However, since this comes after a public allegation (something which easily damages Uber’s reputation, especially considering that the specific incident directly followed a #DeleteUber campaign), it comes off as sketchy to many people.

There are also endless stories about Uber and Lyft ignoring or even covering up sexual harassment claims. Whether it’s at their headquarters or just with drivers, they don’t seem to be as invested in protecting their drivers as they do in protecting their reputation. Of course, they’re businesses. Their first stake is in making themselves look good, and corporations just don’t have the general drive to care about people, especially not if it costs them money. The question for a corporation is, should they spend that money up front to prevent any problems, or will it be cheaper to just deal with problems as they come?

Although Uber tends to be in the news more frequently for these issues, Lyft is not without its own flaws. One driver specifically talks about how extremely difficult it was to even report harassment she experienced on a ride, and then how she was briefly banned from the app for the report. Lyft restored her access after she spoke out publicly, but she was left to wonder whether it really was an accident, as they stated, or if it is something that routinely happens, and women just never say anything about it.

It’s also been noted that Uber and Lyft have limitations on how much actual safety training can be given to their employees. Certain amounts of training will reclassify freelance contractors, which is what rideshare drivers are currently classified as, into employees. Uber and Lyft don’t like that — having someone be an employee means potentially having to pay them more, having to pay them benefits, and having to do an awful lot of paperwork that neither company wants to pay the money to do. So, once again, the corporation is the most important part of this equation. If it seems to come back to money, that’s probably because it does. Uber is valued at 72 billion dollars, and Lyft is valued at 11 billion. Neither company wants to pay their workers more, and for these companies, it seems like if that means their freelance contractors are less safe, so be it.

What Can We Do to Combat It?

Obviously, changing the system entirely is the best way to make people safer. In the class action lawsuit filed against Uber, the plaintiffs are hoping to make Uber require in-person screening, implement fingerprint-based background checks, and hire investigators to look into assault and harassment complaints. The many women who have spoken up about being harassed on the job also tend toward asking Uber and Lyft to put more time into their responses to harassment. By simply creating a task force whose entire job is to respond to harassment and assault allegations, rather than sending the same couple of form letters over and over again, Uber and Lyft can not only make both drivers and passengers feel safer, but actually make them safer in a tangible way.

Of course, the barrier there has to do with the fact that it will cost money for them to do so. Many drivers and riders prefer to go directly to the police, or go to the police as they’re waiting on Lyft and Uber to reply to them. Lyft and Uber are just going to have to decide — is it worth the money to avoid more assaults? The answer may seem obvious to the average person, but apparently it isn’t to Uber and Lyft, yet.

Female Uber driver on way to passenger.

Where Are the Women of the Uber and Lyft World?

Ridesharing services don’t seem like they should suffer unduly from rampant sexism, and yet when you look into it, it’s actually easy to find a startling amount of misogyny permeating Uber and, to a lesser extent, Lyft. Ridesharing apps have been an amazing invention, and there are many drivers and riders who rely very heavily on it, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its problems. As with so many other industries, there are many ways that misogyny has crept into the Uber and Lyft world.

Interestingly, only 14 percent of Uber drivers are women, which is higher than the average percentage of female taxi drivers, but lower than Lyft, which is at about 30 percent. Certain things that ridesharing has improved over traditional taxis, such as the ability to track rides and accept payment in a non-cash manner, has definitely increased safety. But feeling “safer” doesn’t necessarily mean that women feel “safe.” The problem is, those perceptions aren’t always able to be completely disproved.

It’s extremely common for women to be more perceptive to potential danger, even if the situation turns out to be okay. As part of a group that has a 70 percent chance of experiencing violence from men at some point in their lives, it makes sense that women would be more attuned to danger, and also more worried about being caught in a dangerous situation. Honestly, it’s not completely ridiculous for women to be worried about the safety of being a rideshare driver. Below is an explanation of why women may feel less safe in the rideshare business and what can be done to fix it.

What Is Safety?

“Safety” is often conceptualized as the idea of avoiding being physically injured as a driver. Certainly, that’s an important part of being safe on the job, and it’s an issue that can affect male rideshare drivers as much as female ones. Being a cab driver is one of the ten most dangerous jobs in the United States. Though homicide rates are still extremely low, and ridesharing services have found ways around many of the most pressing safety issues that drivers face, it’s understandable to be concerned about that aspect of staying safe. When it comes to physical injury, it’s also common to worry about being struck by other drivers or getting in an accident, both of which are general risks for injury on a day-to-day driving basis, even if you don’t have passengers in the car.

Lyft driver picking up passenger.

Many of the Uber and Lyft safety tips focus on this kind of safety, attempting to help drivers understand how to drive without getting in an accident, as well as how to keep some space between the driver and the passenger, to reduce potential conflict. In fact, of the seven safety tips Uber gives its drivers on its website, four are with regards to avoiding accidents or staying safe in the case of an accident. Only two vaguely reference proactively keeping the peace with your riders, and one explains how to report riders after the fact, if necessary. These are definitely important safety tips, and ones that all riders should keep in mind, but the truth is, female drivers face different challenges when it comes to safety, and it’s not being addressed as well as it should be.

For women, “safety” includes things like being hit on, being touched inappropriately, and even being literally stalked by men. Though simply being flirted with in a situation where you can’t walk away can be an annoyance, many women are forced to see it as a potential danger as well, because they have no idea how volatile the man talking to them is. Turning down a man who clearly seems insistent on getting your number, no matter how polite you are and what excuse you give, could become violent with absolutely no warning, transforming into a severe safety concern within seconds. While physical safety is extremely important, there are behaviors men often exhibit toward women that, while not physically violent on the surface, can easily develop into something dangerous. Many women find the prospect of being alone in a car with a male passenger daunting, and that’s part of the reason many women don’t want to drive for rideshare services

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So, How Can We Fix It?

The issue at hand, obviously, isn’t that women just don’t like driving. After all, HopSkipDrive, a startup that helps harried parents transport their kids to and from appointments and outings, boasts a driver base that’s nearly 100 percent women. Rather, it seems like the issue is split between women who have had bad experiences with Uber or Lyft’s responses to assault, and women who hear these horror stories and decide that they would be better off not putting themselves in that position.

Certainly, there are a number of women who have had previous bad experiences with Uber and have determined never to drive for them again, even if they do decide to use other rideshare services like Lyft. One particular example, which made multiple headlines, was that of an anonymous alleged assault victim who received multiple form letters from Uber after contacting them regarding the incident; in a statement to Forbes, she stated that she was deeply disappointed in the handling of her case, and she never wanted to work for Uber again. A specific anonymous Arizona driver said that she has had unwanted advances “about five times in about a thousand rides,” and, despite the fact that she personally has decided to continue driving for Uber, she believes that every woman is going to have to face that at some point. It’s extremely scary to be confronted with these stories and still make the decision to do that sort of work.

One of the big things that has to change is ridesharing itself. This has already happened in some ways; long ago, drivers could see Lyft passengers’ numbers, leading to some creepy, uncomfortable situations, but that has changed. However, both Uber and Lyft need to make some big changes in how they react to claims of harassment, because right now, their track record isn’t good. Only responding to harassment reports with a phone call after a media outlet releases the story looks bad, and warns women away from the company.

Another thing that needs to change is the companies’ opinions toward women. Lyft has more than twice the percentage of female drivers, and some of that is likely due to the fact that Uber’s official stance on women isn’t exactly rosy. Back in 2014, Uber launched a blatantly sexist promotion called Avions de Chasse, named after a colloquial French term used to describe a beautiful woman, where they effectively advertised the idea of being picked up and driven around for 20 minutes by a model. Travis Kalanick, the prior CEO of Uber, was also well-known for being extremely sexist, which has understandably driven many female riders away from the company.

Uber driver picking up passenger.

If Uber, and to a slightly lesser extent, Lyft, are legitimately interested in making sure that they recruit more women to drive, they need to actively reach out and demonstrate that they take issues with harassment seriously. It’s not just good PR, either; it’s good business sense, as women have been shown to be substantially safer drivers than men. But as long as these horror stories, and Uber and Lyft’s subpar reactions to them, are big news, it’s not going to attract female drivers.

So, Is It Safe to Be a Female Lyft or Uber Driver?

While women who driver for Uber and Lyft definitely have more horror stories regarding their passengers, and tend to also have the unique experience of being resigned to it as a reality, many of them do continue to drive. These women are still driving for Uber or Lyft after having experiences with sexism or harassment, because they don’t feel like the overall risks outweigh the benefits, and because it’s a job that pay money. Though there are risks, many drivers say that the dangers they experience are “nothing that would scare me into not driving again,” as a Los Angeles Uber driver stated. For many women, it’s the perception, and not necessarily the actual reality, that stops them from driving for Uber or Lyft.

While there are certainly dangers in driving for Uber or Lyft, it’s an overhyped myth to say it’s so dangerous that you’re at severe risk of being injured or assaulted if you Drive With Lyft or Uber. Even some of the more sketchy incidents can turn out to be okay; sometimes, just picking up drunk guys can end better than you’d be worried about. Most of the time, it’s smooth sailing, and even the women who do experience unwanted harassment usually don’t have it end up escalating to physical violence. You should take steps to ensure your safety, and it’s likely that you should be a little more cautious than men would. However, if you want to sign up and earn some extra cash, don’t let anyone stop you — Uber and Lyft are both options that you can and should consider pursuing.

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Uber is covering up its misogyny and diversity problems. It’s time for CEO Travis Kalanick to step aside.

Two things happened in the past week that convinced me that Travis Kalanick cannot, or will not, solve Uber’s diversity and misogyny problems, and should step aside as CEO.

First, Uber released its diversity report. It shows an incredibly homogenized company that is likely an unfriendly environment if you are not white and male.

Uber released its diversity report as part of its response to former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s blog post in February, which detailed the sexist and hostile work environment she experienced at Uber. The response included hiring former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an investigation (ongoing) into Ms. Fowler’s allegations.  Additionally, the only woman on Uber’s board, Arianna Huffington, gave a number of interviews, in which she appeared to defend Mr. Kalanick, and denied that sexual harassment was a “systemic problem” at Uber.

The report itself showed a company that is white, Asian, and male dominated. 85% of Uber’s tech employees are male.  Out of 138 senior executives, only 37 are woman, 2 are Hispanic, and 2 are African American. There used to be 1 African American executive at Uber, but then they hired Bernard Coleman III to be the Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion.  Congratulations Uber, you’ve doubled the number of black high-level executives at the company.  Overall, in the tech department, almost 90% of Uber’s leadership is male.

Outside of leadership positions, the numbers aren’t any better. 85% of tech positions are filled by males. Hispanics, African Americans, and those who self-describe as multiracial make up under 6% of Uber’s tech workforce. In fact, the only areas in the company where those groups seem to be well represented are in customer support, administrative, and operations positions. One important thing missing from the report is the company’s employee retention rate. The fact that the company failed to include this information likely indicates that Uber’s retention rate, especially among women and people of color, is not very good.

Besides the hard numbers, the report also demonstrated astonishing tone-deafness by highlighting staff groups for different minorities that have cringe-worthy, or downright offensive names. If you’re black at Uber, you can join UberHUE, and if you’re Hispanic or Latino, you can be a part of Los Ubers. Oh, and at Uber, you’re not a Jew, you’re a Jewber.

How Uber describes it's black and latino employees.

Second, The Information published a report about a trip by Uber executives to an escort bar in South Korea, and the subsequent efforts by Uber to keep reporters from finding out about the trip. The report demonstrated that Uber, rather than trying to fix its problems, is actively trying to cover them up.

Aside from the diversity report, over the weekend, Gabi Holzwarth, the ex-girlfriend of CEO Travis Kalanick, revealed that she accompanied Mr. Kalanick and other senior Uber executives to an escort bar in South Korea. Ms. Holzwarth did not intend to speak out. However, a few weeks ago, Emil Michael, Uber’s SVP of Business, called Ms. Holzwarth and told her to lie to any reporters asking about the incident (Mr. Michael denies Ms. Holzwarth’s characterization of the call). According to Ms. Holzwarth, Mr. Michael (who went to the escort bar) told her to say they just went to a Karaoke bar. Instead, Ms. Holzwarth spoke to a reporter at The Information.

The diversity report shows that Uber has serious problems. Unfortunately, Mr. Michael’s behavior shows that Uber intends to not only do nothing about those problems, but is still trying to actively sweep those problems under the rug. Given Mr. Michael’s history, this is not surprising. After all, in 2014, Mr. Michael suggested (in front of a reporter) that Uber hire a team of people with a million dollar budget to conduct a smear campaign against reporters who wrote negatively about Uber. Earlier today, I saw a report that said Mr. Kalanick might finally fire Mr. Michael. While he should, that in itself is not enough. Mr. Kalanick himself should step down because he is also part of the problem.

Uber’s problem goes beyond the diversity and sexism issues that are present at every large company today, even those companies that make strenuous efforts to do the right thing. Its main problem stems from what many refer to as its “baller” culture, which Mr. Kalanick instilled and nurtured at the company. The original meaning of the term referred to a really good basketball player. While the term predates the song, Skee-Lo used the term this way in I Wish, in 1995. To Mr. Kalanick though, being a baller means that you are, or perceive yourself to be, a bad ass, or a big shot. He actually said, in an oblivious act of cultural appropriation, that he started Uber so he could be a baller.

It was a lifestyle thing. Me, my cofounder, and our hundred friends could roll around San Francisco like ballers. – Travis Kalanick

The problem is that many ballers may think of themselves as ballers, but other people don’t always see them that way. They just see them as jerks. Now, if Mr. Kalanick was just rolling around San Francisco acting like a baller, it would be one thing. However, he’s running a company with 15,000 employees. This is a problem because ballers tends to make poor executives and terrible CEO’s. Many ballers walk around thinking every woman wants to sleep with them, because they’re a baller. Often, they hit on and harass woman incessantly. This is obnoxious and annoying, but at a workplace, it’s not acceptable and is also illegal.

Former Attorney General Holder’s report won’t be out for a while, but I can almost guarantee it will show a work culture at Uber that is hostile and unfriendly to women and people of color. It will likely detail a number of examples of racist or sexist behavior that occurred at the company and will recommend changes. Unfortunately, the real change needed is for Travis Kalanick to step down and hire a professional CEO. Otherwise, Uber’s baller culture will continue and various groups will continue to be harassed and marginalized at Uber.

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Uber’s Diversity Report – Uber has a lot of work to do, part 2.

I’ll be posting more on Uber’s diversity report tomorrow.  For now, I’ll just say that if your company is under fire for being possibly racist and misogynistic, don’t be cute with the headings in your diversity report.  UberHue and Los Ubers?!  Really guys?

How Uber describes it's black and latino employees.

Also, this one.  As a jew, if I want to refer to myself as a Jewber, I can.  Uber referring to jews as “Jewbers” is not Kosher. Uber’s Diversity Report