About 1,000 female cab drivers have joined Toronto's UberX in the past three months, almost doubling the number.
Esther Nerling is the UberX Queen of Toronto.
On most Saturday nights, the 60-year-old drives her black Volkswagen Jetta around the GTA, picking up customers through the ride-sharing app Uber.
Nerling, a former RBC banker who joined Uber back in 2014, says the flexible hours immediately attracted her to the job. Initially the gig was a way for Nerling to make extra money and help her pay for her daughter’s Master’s degree, but it has now become her primary source of income. She earns between $29 and $36 an hour and often finds herself driving until 4 a.m.
But even when Nerling works those late nights, she says the job doesn’t scare her, a contrast to a longstanding perception about the barriers for female cab drivers.
Fears about not knowing who will end up in the backseat of your car, combined with late hours spent driving on your own have traditionally been perceived as roadblocks discouraging women from entering the taxi industry.
But Nerling frames it as a perk of the job, and says she loves the fact that she meets new people through her job.
“On Halloween I dressed up as Cruella de Vil and gave out chocolate bars. My customers were squealing,” says Nerling, who lives in Scarborough. Despite her friendly nature, she says most UberX users are still surprised when they hop in the backseat of her car and realize a woman is behind the wheel.
Nerling is part of a growing Uber trend. In Toronto, the company now boasts about 2,200 female drivers—a big jump from 1,200 in October 2015—and is recruiting more. Nationwide, Uber counts a total of 22,000 active drivers (male and female), and that number continues to grow.
“What we’re hearing from female driver partners is that they feel safe driving because of the features built into the app,” says Susie Heath, a spokesperson for Uber Canada. “Every ride is tracked by GPS, they know who is getting into their car, and there’s no cash exchanged.”
As part of its efforts to encourage more women to become drivers, last year Uber pledged to create job opportunities for one million women worldwide (the company currently operates in more than 360 cities and 60 countries). Recent numbers in the U.S. also show an increase in female drivers. According to survey paid for by Uber and administered by Benenson Strategy Group [PDF], 29 per cent of Uber drivers who started in the past three months were women and 19 per cent of all current Uber drivers in the U.S. are women, up from 14 per cent in December 2014.
Meanwhile, the traditional taxi industry in Canada remains predominantly male. Data from the 2006 long-form census found that 85 per cent of taxi drivers in Canada are men. A recent Toronto Star article suggests there are about 100 female taxi drivers in the city. But Beck Taxi, Uber’s prime competitor, has a meagre six drivers who are female working in Toronto.
“As a company that is operated by two women, Beck has always been supportive of women getting into the taxi industry,” says Kristine Hubbard, operations manager at Beck.
“There are many ways women can contribute to our industry now just as drivers.”
Nerling’s concern for her personal safety is what stopped her from pursuing a career as a traditional taxi driver. “I would be too worried about picking up people off the curb,” she says. “That wouldn’t make me feel very safe.”
Instead, Uber’s app and rating system allows Nerling to review her riders before they hop into her car. And since money is exchanged electronically, that removes another risk. Uber takes about 20 per cent of drivers’ fare, but drivers don’t have to worry that customers will ditch the ride without paying; a credit card is required to use the app.
Yet for some drivers like Natalie from Mississauga (who asked that we not use her last name for privacy concerns), being a woman behind the wheel of the ride-sharing service can be tense. “If there are five guys in my vehicle, and maybe they’ve been drinking and they have attitude, then I might feel uncomfortable,” she says.
Despite these concerns, Natalie remains a strong believer in Uber and says most of her interactions with customers have been positive ones. Like Nerling, Natalie says Uber provided her with a job when she was out of work.
Uber has faced its share of backlash in recent months. Just weeks after the company announced its pledge to create one million jobs for women by 2020, its original partner—UN Women—withdrew its support when the ride-share’s safety record and treatment of drivers was questioned. Incidents of Uber drivers allegedly assaulting their customers have continued to surface, and resulted in growing safety concerns for passengers using this unregulated service.
So why doesn’t Toronto’s regulated taxi industry employ more women?
Pamela Sugiman, a sociology professor at Ryerson University, argues that many workplaces—such as the service industries in which cab drivers operate—have a long history of gender bias. “These jobs have such strong gender labels” that dictate what an appropriate career for women might be, she explains. “We take it for granted and we don’t question it.”
Stereotypes of women as bad drivers are still very much prevalent in our society, Sugiman says, and breaking down those barriers can be challenging. Female Uber drivers, she says, continue to face the same risks as taxi drivers: “The service still isn’t regulated or protected and drivers can be fired quickly.”
Sugiman understands Uber’s success in part because of the tough economic times and high demand for work in a precarious industry—but real change takes time. “The more women you get in these positions, the more likely they are to challenge the perceptions and change the work environment,” she says. As a solution, Sugiman suggests moving toward a more gender-neutral workplace.
Uber is moving in that direction. Last month, the company hosted “Women Who Move Toronto,” an event celebrating the growing number of women becoming drivers in the city. There, the female UberX drivers in Toronto shared stories and exchanged road experiences. The company plans to host more events like it across North America in the coming months.
Nerling and Natalie hope there will be more opportunity to engage with Toronto’s female Uber driver community. The pair agrees that while Uber seems to be taking steps in the right direction, more can always be done to encourage more women to be on the road.
“I think that all Uber drivers should be women,” Nerling jokes.
Her idea is not so far-fetched. There have been several global Women4Women ride-share initiatives, including the New York-based SheTaxi/SheRides. Launched in 2014, the ride-share company has all women drivers servicing only women passengers. Uber currently doesn’t allow its female customers to select female only drivers.
But for now, Uber Canada’s stance against gender bias is a start—enough for drivers like Nerling to put the work risks aside and focus on the benefits.