Gender Bender: Why Female Drivers Prefer Car-Hire Start-Ups Over Cabs

If there's one thing Tara Housman gleaned from driving taxis for 29 years in San Francisco, it's that she'd rather work the night shift.

"The streets are clearer," Housman says, chattering into her cellphone from the cab line in front of the Bank of America building. "The drunks are bad at math, and they tip better." If a passenger gets surly, she'll discard him at the nearest brightly lit intersection. "And generally," she says, "they know why."

In a city where women represent an estimated 5 percent of the taxi-driving workforce — which is appreciably more than in most urban cities — Housman is something of a rarity: Fifty-five years old, garrulous, flinty, apt to regale customers with mini-tours of the city, but quick to dump the ones who give her any lip.

Cab driving hasn't traditionally been a woman's domain. In the taxi industry, women might take jobs as clerks or dispatchers, collect the cash and hand out the keys, but they're generally not inclined to ferry customers around town — with good reason, says Christiane Hayashi, the SFMTA's director of Taxis and Accessible Services. There's no telling what can happen when you're alone in a car with strangers.

Improbably, though, women seem to be gravitating toward other forms of professional driving. App-based car-hire start-ups such as Lyft and Summon (formerly InstantCab) both attract a hefty number of female applicants — Lyft, in fact, has a 30 percent female livery force in San Francisco, according to a spokeswoman. SideCar, which is still majority male, saw a spike in female interest after unveiling a feature that allows drivers to stick within circumscribed zones. Uber, whose spokesman declined to discuss gender ratios, touts certain "safety features" that make it hospitable to women.

It's worth noting that a woman need only drive one shift a month to count as part of the "workforce" at any of these companies, which skews the gender statistics in their favor. Yet there still seems to be a stronger female presence in the start-ups than in cab companies. Even though the app-based services have fewer safety requirements than traditional cabs, and even though they're not equipped with standard taxi dashboard cameras or radio dispatch systems, they seem to enjoy a sunnier public image.

Chalk that up to marketing (not for nothing does the Lyft pink mustache connote innocence and stylishness) or to the flexible hours (any soccer mom can drive for Summon). To Hayashi, though, the discrepancy points to a deeper problem: Techie cars-for-hire aren't mandated to drive into undesirable neighborhoods, or pick up unsavory customers.

They have the veneer of gender equity, without the demand to be equitable.

 
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