Uber's Drivers Aren't Employees, but It Plans to Create a Million Jobs for Women

The company has created a series of women’s campaigns in recent weeks.

Mar 10 2015, 5:06pm

​Image: ​Adam Fagen/Flickr

​Ridesharing juggernaut Uber launched an initiative Tuesday to create 1 million jobs for women by 2020, its latest campaign targeting women as it faces mounting criticism for its safety policies and the sexual harassment of female passengers.

The initiative was made in partnership with UN Women, an agency for gender equality, and is a part of the UN's "mission of economic empowerment," UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a joint statement. UPDATE: It appears that the relationship between Uber and UN Women was mischaracterized in the initial announcement, which described it as "a new global partnership." "Uber has provided sponsorship for UN Women's event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action 'Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,'" a spokesperson ​told Fast Company. "Beyond this event, we have not discussed opportunities to engage with Uber, including in the context of their commitment to create 1 million jobs for women in the next five years. At this point, we do not plan to expand the collaboration."

"This important mission can only be accomplished when all women have direct access to safe and equitable earning opportunities," the announcement said. An Uber spokesperson told Motherboard by email about 14 percent of its drivers in the US are women, compared to 1 percent of cab drivers in New York City.

A video announcing the initiative touts the flexible hours that come with being an Uber driver, featuring a female driver in Nairobi who says as a normal taxi driver she didn't have time to see her young daughter. "Uber changed my life," she says.

"In addition, with Uber, there is no gender-based wage gap: men and women earn equally on the platform," the Uber spokesperson told Motherboard.

In Montreal, Uber celebrated International Women's day by giving five female drivers socks and jewelry.

Uber has faced criticisms of its bro-y corporate culture, particularly after its senior vice president of business threatened to blackmail a female journalist last year. It also faces serious safety concerns, especially for women, after several incidents of drivers kidnapping, harassing, and sexually assaulting female passengers. After one high-profile case in India, Uber later installed a "panic button" to its mobile app that will alert the police in case of an emergency, a move many criticised as still putting the onus of stopping an assault on the potential victim.

Perhaps in light of these criticisms, Uber has been been beefing up its pro-woman PR outreach. It recently launched a campaign in Seattle called #WomenMoveUs celebrating "inspiring" women in the city. The company also featured Women's Day deal in Vietnam telling female customers to celebrate their day by not wearing makeup and "being fashionable." In Montreal, Uber celebrated International Women's day by giving five female drivers socks and jewelry.

Now, the company says it wants to "empower" women by paying them to drive for Uber. The job creation angle is particularly interesting given that the fact Uber refuses to call its drivers employees is the very thing that keeps the company from having to comply with traditional regulation.

Both Uber and its main competitor Lyft are battling to prove their drivers are contractors, not employees. Uber is currently fighting in a federal court to prove its drivers are not employees, but users of the app.

"We make our money from licensing our software, when they use it successfully we can be compensated," an attorney for Uber said, according to Bloomberg. "There is a difference between benefiting from a transaction and from a service."

Meanwhile, drivers argue they are employees and therefore entitled to minimum wage and other employee benefits. Many drivers say they often make less than minimum wage and certainly do not earn the $90,000 a year figure the company promotes.

While Uber says it plans to offer one million "safe, flexible, and equitable earning opportunities for women," it is not clear what those opportunities entail. 

Correction: This post originally stated that the Uber CEO threatened to blackmail a journalist, when it was actually the senior vice president of business. It also stated that Uber had no female executives; the firm's general counsel is Salle Yoo. Motherboard regrets the errors.

UPDATE: UN Women told Fast Company that it ​does not have any plans to partner with Uber on job creation; the organization merely accepted some funding from Uber for an event. Uber reiterated its goal of creating a million jobs for women, and said it will be "seeking advice from UN Women and groups around the world."