Sarah Millender wasn’t too concerned about her safety when she signed up as a driver four months ago. Today, she spends around 50 hours a week in her car, working full time for both Uber and Lyft. As she begins her Saturday night shift, she picks up a couple headed to dinner. They make small talk, and eventually ask Millender what it’s like being a female driver.
As she begins to tell the couple about her less-than-positive encounters, she mentions that she “didn’t realize how much the comments would get to [her].”
Millender is somewhat of a rarity. Women make up only 14 percent of Uber drivers and less than 33 percent of Lyft drivers. To give perspective, it’s a bit more than women taxi drivers, who make up only 12 percent of their workforce. Millender says there’s a reason for that.
“I found that being a female Uber driver, I’m almost inviting strange people into my house,” Millender says. “Several times a day, a man will get in my car and start hitting on me.”
Millender says that men comment on her looks and body on a daily basis. She’s had several men offer her money to hang out – whether it’s dinner or a night at their place – and many reach from the passenger’s seat to touch her legs. There have been so many occasions where male passengers assume Millender can clock out and come into their homes, that she feels neither she nor her job are taken seriously.
Both Uber and Lyft have hotlines that drivers and passengers can call when they feel they’ve been harassed. But Texas A&M law professor Michael Green says there’s a grey area in the companies’ accountability for their drivers’ well being because they’re technically independent contractors.
“If they’re not employees, you don’t have an employer-employee arrangement, as far as their safety, as far as sexual harassment, as far as any of these issues,” Green says. “You have to be an employee to have those kinds of legal protections.”
It’s not always easy for drivers to stand up for themselves. Because Uber and Lyft work on a two-way rating system where drivers and passengers provide feedback on rides, drivers are hesitant to react negatively in these uncomfortable situations. A bad rating could affect their job prospects. That is, in fact, the only way to get fired: getting your rating so low that the company has to kick you out.
“I have to hold my tongue … and then bring it up with Uber or Lyft,” Millender says. “But if I say it to [the passenger], it will bring my rating down, which affects my job.”
Drivers can just as well give passengers a negative rating, which will ensure he or she doesn’t get paired up with that person again, but Millender doesn’t think that’s enough. She says there should be an option for drivers to flag passengers as sexually aggressive, because a low rating can mean many things.
“It’s not that I feel unsafe as much as I feel, I suppose, exposed to that kind of a world that I did not know before,” Millender says. “And I feel very disrespected on a regular basis.”
Not every female driver’s experience is negative, however. Shanté Smith, who works full time at H-E-B, started driving part-time for Uber during last year’s ACL Festival for extra income. She says she’s never experienced any sexual harassment, despite driving mostly at night.
“I have a really nice profile picture, and actually, sometimes some of the male passengers are like, ‘Oh wow, you’re really cute,’” Smith says with a laugh. “But you know, I take it as a compliment.”
Smith sometimes gets female passengers that are relieved to have a woman driver because of bad experiences with past male drivers, and a general concern for their safety. But although Smith says she feels empowered in her job, Millender doesn’t always agree. Because she has an autoimmune disorder that can keep her in bed for 10 days at a time, a flexible job like Uber and Lyft is ideal for her unstable schedule. The reason she tolerates a daily dosage of sexual harassment is simple: at the end of the day, she says, she knows she’s going to get paid.