GET REAL

Uber’s Women Initiative Is Nothing But PR

Yesterday Uber announced a partnership with the UN to create one million jobs for women by 2020. Color us skeptical.

03.11.15 4:21 PM ET

Uber announced Tuesday that it will create one million jobs for women by 2020—the latest step in its bid to tackle its anti-female reputation.

The on-demand car service has teamed up with the UN in promising to create a platform for the “economic empowerment” of women—an “important mission [that] can only be accomplished when all women have direct access to safe and equitable earning opportunities,” the company said in a statement.

Launching the initiative on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, which pledges to “advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka shared their scheme to “invest in long-term programs in local communities where we live and work.” For any company, creating such a huge number of jobs in just five years would seem like a big ask, but given the app’s relatively low proportion of female employees already (around 86 percent of New York’s Uber drivers are men), this plan may prove to be overly ambitious.

Uber’s attitude towards women has been repeatedly called into question since the service’s inception in 2010, with a spate of recent incidents adding to its increasingly negative reputation. A lawsuit is currently underway in Delhi, where a 26-year-old woman was reportedly raped in one of their cars—a crime which led to the service being temporarily banned across India’s capital city; another was kidnapped for several hours in LA, a journey they later described as an “inefficient route” and only partially refunded; a senior executive at the company was privately recorded encouraging that dirt be “dug up” on its critics, with particular reference to a female journalist; and tales of harassment, both during and after journeys, where some drivers have been found to have access to passengers’ personal details, have been worryingly frequent. Encouraging economic independence for women is great, but can a flashy initiative really undo Uber’s murky misdemeanors?

“If women are being raped, throwing jobs at them won’t stop the problem,” says 23-year-old Ness Tubb, who uses the app. “They need to make fundamental changes to their policies and who they allow to drive for them.”

The need for more rigorous background checks on its drivers has been a common gripe against the company, one which they appeared to address by introducing a $1 “safety fee” back in December. The added fare was introduced to enable a “federal, state, and local background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education and development of safety features in the app,” but seemed to miss the mark, once again placing the responsibility of customer welfare in the hands of its passengers rather than its employees.

The launch of Tuesday’s initiative, which came about after a third party introduced the teams, is a further effort to stymie the undesirable views of the taxi company’s safety values. “We believe that along with our driver partners we have built the safest transportation option in more than 290 cities around the world,” explains Uber spokeswoman Molly Spaeth. “We will never stop innovating on our safety features.”

But these promises fall flat for many of those who have been angered by the service’s implementation of security measures thus far. “Everything we know about the blackmailing and extortion culture of Uber goes against this latest move,” former user Nicola Ambler rails against their latest initiative. “Safety for female passengers does not mean increasing the number of female drivers so men aren’t in a position to rape. If you can’t vet and check and educate your drivers properly, you shouldn’t be in business.”

Uber seems like a good representative of the even-bad-publicity-is-good-publicity ethos: it remains a commercial success, and will reportedly post a gross revenue of $10bn at the end of the year with its revenue growing 300 percent during 2014. It is still the leader in the taxi app field by a long way, with competitors such as Hailo and Lyft unable to emulate its vast reach.

Though the company undeniably has several issues it needs address, this empowerment mission could be a hugely positive step, if done right. At best, it could level the gender playing field in a number of countries worldwide, greatly enhance passenger safety and even stimulate growth in stagnant economies. The logistics of the partnership, however, remain a little unclear—there has been no explanation of which roles these new female recruits will be assigned to, and if these new employees are sidelined into administrative jobs, for example, a major opportunity to reform the safety of the taxi industry will have been lost.