'Is it worth your life?': Women working for apps like Uber don't feel safe reporting harassment

In this Jan. 12, 2016, file photo, a ride share car displays Lyft and Uber stickers on its front windshield in downtown Los Angeles. (AP / Richard Vogel)

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other similar apps are failing to support women gig workers, a University of British Columbia study suggests.

According to the study, gig-industry platforms like these put women at financial and personal risk.

Gig-industry jobs are often freelance, and connect workers with customers through an online platform or app.

Researchers interviewed 20 female gig workers from both the U.S. and Canada and found that women said they usually have to “brush off” sexual harassment due to the lack of resources and fear of job loss.

“Is it worth your life to speak up right now? And most of the time, it’s not, so you just don’t,” one female driver said as to why she doesn’t feel safe speaking up.

The study's lead author explained this type of response was common.

“The platforms have no clear policies to support women drivers to set clear boundaries when interacting with riders: when is it okay to kick someone out of the car without being penalized by a low rating from that rider?” said Ning Ma in a news release.

According to research by marketing and consumer data website Statista in 2019, 45 percent of female respondents said they have worked in the gig economy in Canada, which is three per cent higher than male respondents.

Perhaps because of this, some apps have made efforts to account for the safety of their female drivers.

On many of these apps, female drivers can click on a safety button that dials 911. Ma believes this is not always helpful.

She said the majority of the harassment incidents were verbal and didn’t require 911. In other words, calling 911 wastes time for these female gig workers who are trying to earn money, Ma explained in the release.

The study suggests that “brushing off” harassment was a de-escalation technique for some women.

“I had a guy refuse to exit my vehicle unless I kissed him...I delayed and defect(ed). I was dropping him of at another bar so I told him that after I was done with my shift I’d meet up with him and he agreed to that. Of course I never went back. But he agreed to that so he exited the vehicle and I was able to leave,” said one driver interviewed for the study.

Another factor for “brushing off” harassment was the fear of losing their jobs by getting lower ratings.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

To prevent or decrease incidents of harassment, Ma said, these apps could match female drivers with female passengers, especially during the nighttime.

The study recommends that these platforms have clear guidelines about how workers should manage interactions with customers and when they should stop providing service. In addition, platforms could allow drivers to give context for negative ratings.

“These platforms are a new form of workplace, and they need to start viewing gig workers as ‘workers’ and invest in their safety and comfort,” said Ma.