Ride-sharing platforms in Asia are thriving but their impact on women’s safety and mobility remains largely unexplored. This is concerning, given the prevalence of gender-based violence in conventional transport, particularly in South Asia where women face greater restrictions on independent mobility.
Co-founder and CEO Sixit Bhatta describes Tootle, which launched in 2017, consistently as “not just a ride-sharing company, the whole idea revolves around encouraging freedom of movement”. Tootle seeks to expand the freedom of movement, especially as Kathmandu’s public transport has been unfriendly towards differently-abled people and women.
Without questioning Tootle’s social justice concerns, the focus on women was recognised as a business strategy as women comprise at least half of the potential passenger population and constitute a dormant pool of potential riders.
Women are also underrepresented in paid work. In Ethiopia, for example, these observations have contributed to the launch of a ride-sharing platform (Seregela) which worked with women drivers exclusively.
Recruiting more women as drivers is probably the most effective strategy to increase the share of women passengers. Women drivers convey a sense of safety and security to women passengers. Tootle has built this factor into its ride-sharing app by allowing passengers to ‘choose’ between men and women drivers.
However, attracting more women drivers is a challenge. The ride-sharing platforms seek to address this by championing women as drivers in their advertisements and by depicting ride-sharing as a women’s practice, involving women drivers and women passengers.
The platforms also publish success stories about women drivers that carefully weave together the benefits of being a driver with aspects of women’s conventional gender roles. Tootle also sought to attract women drivers by not charging them a commission (initially it charged men drivers a 4 percent commission).
Tootle not only creates its supply of drivers in gendered ways, following the theoretical premise that platform companies are ‘in the business of making markets’ it does the same for demand. For the public this is less visible; yet, probably more impactful. In its driver’s interface, Tootle represents demand for ride-shares in hetero-normative ways: customers are presented as either female or male.
Research in 2019 suggests that drivers (who are mostly men), indeed, use this to give preference to women passengers. For example, women passengers rarely complained about long waits. One woman customer who mostly used Tootle said: “I never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a ride-request sent.” In contrast, men frequently complained. One said: “It will be a pleasant surprise if I ever get a ride without waiting for more than 30 minutes.”
Allowing drivers to give preference to women passengers can be argued to make ride-sharing more women-friendly because it reduces waiting times for women.
Unfortunately, it also facilitates sexism.
A male customer interviewed referred to a response he got when he complained to a (male) Tootle driver who picked him up after a long wait: “You should feel lucky, because you are my first male customer [today]. I never give rides to males but only to females. Why would I become a driver otherwise — it’s fun having a female on the back of my bike.”
While in this specific case no woman was negatively affected, the driver’s attitude mirrors those collected online from women passengers reporting harassment by male drivers both during and after the ride-share.
These incidents happen despite compulsory onboarding of new drivers in which ride-sharing platforms instruct newly recruited drivers about avoiding unwanted behaviour.
New drivers are told to not tease women customers, to refrain from comments that could be interpreted as sexual innuendos and to refrain from asking women customers to sit closer to the driver, or to brake in such a manner that the body of the woman passenger touches the driver.
Across Asia, ride-sharing platforms have significantly transformed urban transportation, including in gendered ways. The expanded choice and availability of transport options is good news, especially for those women looking for and able to afford alternatives to existing gender-insecure forms of transport.
Recruitment efforts targeting women as drivers has not only created new opportunities for paid (part-time) work for women, it also contributed to further shifts in gender norms in urban transport.
However, the gender justice argument put forth by Nepal’s ride-sharing platforms must be recognised as a business strategy. When platforms make markets in gendered ways, this creates gendered tensions.
Most notably, allowing driver selection based on the passenger’s gender seems beneficial to women initially but it encourages sexist attitudes and creates the potential for gender-based violence.
Over recent years, Nepal’s ride-sharing platforms have improved complaint and tracking mechanisms to combat sexism. Yet, the failure to increase the share of women as drivers delimits the inclusiveness of ride-sharing platforms. Improving women’s riders working conditions may be the surest way to address this.