Women Grab the Wheel in World’s Least-Diverse Occupation

Virtually all taxi drivers everywhere are men. Growing numbers of female entrepreneurs are trying to change that.

Nina Mizrahi has grown accustomed to the insults and the mockery. When she queues for passengers at taxi stands in northern Israel, fellow drivers ask what she’s doing in “their” business. At a local dispatch station, she frequently hears lewd comments about female passengers. A WhatsApp group for drivers brims with sexual innuendo. “I want women to know that there’s an option, the choice to have a female driver,” says Mizrahi, who in 2017 bought a taxi to offer rides to women and children. “A taxi is a very intimate place,” she says. “It’s you and the driver, usually closed windows. Many women don’t feel comfortable.”

The driver’s seat of a taxi remains an almost exclusively male domain. In New York City, just 1% of yellow cab drivers are female. In England’s black cab and private-hire market, that number is 2%. Gett Inc., a ride-hailing service in Britain, Israel, and Russia, says women account for about 4% of its drivers—but more than half its passengers. “The job has been perceived as being more ‘male’ for years,” says Keren Fanan, Gett’s chief commercial officer. “It’s been this way forever.”

With so many women depending on taxis to get around, more of them are starting to drive or are launching ride-hailing services. Since 2018, women in Nairobi, Kenya, have been able to find female taxi drivers via an app called An Nisa. Cairo entrepreneur Reem Fawzi in 2015 launched Pink Taxi, which bills itself as Egypt’s first transportation service solely for women, by women. In India, Sakha Consulting Wings, which has promoted the training of female drivers and offered cab services since 2008, is now available in Delhi, Kolkata, and Jaipur. And in Brazil, three-year-old startup Lady Driver has raised $2.5 million based on plans to connect women drivers and passengers. The company says it can differentiate itself from the likes of Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. by offering better pay for drivers and a greater feeling of security for passengers. It says its app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

A Sakha car in India.
PHOTOGRAPHER: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Lady Driver’s focus on safety is typical of the new initiatives, as many women remain nervous about traditional taxis. Last December, Uber released a report that found more than 3,000 allegations of sexual assault involving its drivers or passengers in the U.S. in 2018. (Uber says safety issues are rare, and security features like knowing a driver’s information in advance are key reasons women use its service.) Gett has encouraged its Israeli drivers not to pull away until female passengers are safely inside their homes during late-night drop-offs. Aisha Addo, founder of DriveHER in Toronto, a female-only ride-hailing app, says she was motivated by frequent reports of harassment among women who use cabs and car services. “For women who travel a lot, hearing stories of transportation issues and their transportation woes is not new,” Addo says. “We’re not just going to sit around waiting for another company to create a safe space for us.”

Since its founding more than a decade ago, Sakha says it’s provided more than a million rides to women and helped about 850 of them gain professional qualifications to work as a chauffeur. Almost 400 are now on the road. The jobs have given women greater financial and social independence, allowing some drivers to fund their children’s education or walk out of abusive relationships.

The flexible hours offered by driving can be a big draw for women seeking to balance the demands of family and work. But Arianne Renan Barzilay, an associate professor at Israel’s University of Haifa law school, who studies gender and the gig economy around the world, says there are still inequities in such jobs. Often they don’t come with full legal benefits, and women can be disadvantaged, she says, without protections around issues like sexual discrimination. An analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., has documented a 7% gender pay gap for Uber drivers. “The way the gig economy works now, it doesn’t necessarily provide for equality between men and women,” Barzilay says.

The coronavirus outbreak has slowed efforts by women to get into the business. With less travel, taxi ridership is down. And many women who might consider driving face an increased child-care burden with their kids home from school due to lockdowns. Entrepreneurs have responded by trying to raise extra funding to survive the fallow period or delaying launches. Addo, for instance, had aimed to introduce DriveHER last spring, but delayed its opening.

Others have called it quits. Femitaxi, another Brazilian startup, ceased operations in June. And Tal BeRun, who drove a cab for more than seven years in Tel Aviv, shut down her meter for good because of the pandemic. “Work didn’t return to what it was, so there was no reason to go back,” says BeRun, 60. “I’m not so young anymore, and I can’t make many changes.”

Many women aren’t ready to give up on hacking, however. Mizrahi, 52, comes from a family of nine siblings and recalls the pleasure of car rides with her father during her childhood. One evening several years ago, while chatting with her girlfriends, she was struck that they’d all been harassed in cabs. That spurred her to start driving—and exposed her to the rampant sexism of the business. During a mandatory mechanics class to get her taxi license, her all-male fellow students told her women are more likely to get into accidents. And three times, vandals have smashed the windows of her taxi, a white Dacia Sandero with “For Women and Girls” written on the back and a small plastic Wonder Woman action figure dangling from the rearview mirror.

But she keeps on driving, ferrying children to school for busy parents, and for welfare officials, transporting victims of sexual or physical assault to shelters. Her ultimate goal is to start her own dispatching company for women. “I hear the male drivers say, ‘Go back to the kitchen, go do laundry,’ ” Mizrahi says. “I just smile. There’s nothing else I can do.”

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