The Women Behind the Wheel
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The Women Behind the Wheel

On Toronto streets, a taxi cab is never far out of sight. But try spotting a woman in the driver's seat. Torontoist spoke to two women who make their living behind the wheel.

Shirley Marashi in front of her taxi.

In this city of taxicabs—4,849 are officially registered with the City of Toronto—only a handful of its cab drivers are women. No official statistics were available, but the number of women drivers is well under ten, according to word-of-mouth estimates. There are safety risks inherent in the profession, but more than that, it’s a culture that’s been carved out by male drivers. Some women cite fear of assault; others, alienation. Regardless of the complex and overlapping barriers, women have yet to move into the industry in large numbers. But some have. We spoke with two women cab drivers recently about their experience as the exceptions, and about where they think women fit within the industry.

women cab drivers Etsehiwot EjiguDriver: Etsehiwot Ejigu
Age: 38
Years driving a taxi: Five

What made you become a cabdriver?
It is work. It’s work. I’m a single mom. You can work any time. Any time I need to go pick up the kids, it’s flexible to drive the taxi. And good business. I used to work a front desk at an office. But it’s hard when you’re a mom. When [my daughter] had pink eye, when she was sick, I’d bring her into the office. She’d be under the table. And they called for the manager, and they said “Oh, she’s with her daughter.” They like to talk, I don’t know. Now with the taxi, if she’s sick I come home.

How many kids do you have?
One, a daughter. She’s teenager, so don’t put anything to embarrass her.

What do you like about your job?
I love to talk. It’s independent, nice work. When you need coffee, you need to go somewhere, you can work, too. If you have pay a lot for renting, you work hard. In this system, the taxi system, you rent per week. Like apartments. You pay $500 for this taxi—it’s more money for you if you don’t work. And sometimes if you don’t get money, you get more stressed out.

And what don’t you like about it?
You know? This rate is $500. And we’re crazy in the street—you see us—taxi drivers are crazy because we have a lot of stress. The city don’t think about how much we pay, how much we get, they just see the taxi do this, the taxi do that, the taxi do—because with most of the stress, I don’t like this job. And sometimes people don’t pay. Some people say they forgot money, and they say they’ll come back and they never do.

How many other women work with you?
Out of this company of around two thousand taxis, we have maybe five ladies working. Really. The woman is scared. I don’t want to drive around at night; it’s no good. But daytime, we are good. I work for Beck Taxi—we have a two-way radio. This is safe. You know when something happens? I say something, everyone hears, and people are here in one minute. This is safe. If a woman is scared because someone is behind you always, a scary guy and scary ladies, too, they take you out of town. They can take you anywhere. And because of that, it’s not so safe. But for me? I have to, have to have this radio. This radio saves lives.

You’ve never had an altercation, or a close call?
No, nobody. Somebody hit me? No. Because I am smart. And they might try to, but they forget because I talk too much. And when you are a lady, everybody says, “Oh my gosh, you’re a lady!” They’re surprised to see me, you know? Some say, “Oh, you’re a driver? Is this your husband’s car?” No. I do not drive my husband’s car; this is my car. Always they’re surprised, not to attack you, they’re surprised.

It’s a good surprise. Does that help with tips?
(Laughs) No. I work. I rent this car for $500 a week; it takes at least seven days to cover that. I cover that in five days, because Saturday and Sunday I have to take care of my daughter. That’s my job, you know—cooking, cleaning. I always have both jobs. And in five days, I work hard. Never, ever stop. No lunch. We make maybe $5 per hour, maybe $40 per hour. But there’s no taxi stand anywhere; we struggle. But through all this, we survive. I work. Sometimes it’s not so good, but it’s work.

How long do you work each day?
I work from six to six. When you get customers? Okay. But if you don’t get customers, you’re standing most of the time.

Why don’t you think there are more women cab drivers?
I don’t know—they’re scared. For me, they’re scared. They’re scared for me, too. They say, “Are you sure you want to drive a taxi? How?” You know, I drive a taxi because it’s my job. This camera’s working; this radio’s working. We have a GPS to say wherever you are. They might think it’s dangerous, but it isn’t. If ladies like to drive, drive. But you have to have patience, because you don’t make money always.

If you could go back, would you choose a different career in Toronto?
I know how to make a car; I know how to weld. Back in Ethiopia, I was a mechanic. But I can’t be that here because you have to go to school another 10 years to change your profession. I wish I had my own profession. But otherwise, I’m trying to make time to teach driving. Have benefits. Now, sometimes I can work another job, but nighttime is not comfortable for me.

Now I tell other drivers how to fix their cars. They tell me advice; I tell them how to make their car. Most taxi drivers here are professionals. They are doctors; they are engineers. In this country, it’s not easy to transfer one degree for another degree.

Do you have any advice for other female cab drivers?
We are ladies. We are ladies with opportunities. We shouldn’t be surprising because we are drivers—we are working! What is the difference? He drive somebody, and me drive somebody. Nighttime? Yeah I’m crazy because it’s dangerous. Daytime? I drive. When I get money, I got it. When I don’t get money, I don’t get it. That is the point. Because there is no difference. We all drive with a hand and a leg.

Driver: Shirley Marashi
Age: 55
Years driving a taxi: Almost eight

Why did you choose to become a driver?
It all started out with my husband. He’s a driver, too. He had a car that he was leasing out, and Ambassadors can’t buy new plates, but he could at least do it with my name. [Editor’s note: Toronto taxis have a two-tiered plate system, Standard and Ambassador. While Standard plates are a hot commodity and have been known to sell in the six figures, Ambassador licences are non-transferrable and can’t be bought or sold.] That was the reason in the beginning. But then it became like any other job. You start doing it, and you just do it. You just fall into it.

Do you enjoy it?
I do enjoy it.

I’m a people person, and I love driving. With those two things combined, it makes it easier. If you don’t like those two things, you really have no business in this business. It’s dealing with people, and it’s driving. I don’t mind driving in any kind of weather, unless it’s treacherous. Also in the beginning, like seven years ago, I still had a couple of kids in grade school, so I was flexible to get to where they were if they needed me. Now they’re in high school, and I’m still running around with them.

Sounds like a good deal. Is there anything about the job that you don’t particularly enjoy?
I wish it was a little bit busier. There are so many of us, some days it’s hard to make a good living. If it’s slow, it’s no fun. So that would be my least favourite part of the job. When business is moving, I really like the job. I like the money, and I like the guys I work with. They all treat me great. In the beginning, that’s one thing I was leery of. I thought they were looking at me like a two-headed monster. But that was just me, thinking “Where the heck is she coming from?” But it wasn’t like that. They’re all very respectful guys.

You learn a lot about people in this business. It’s quite equivalent to being a bartender. You hear lots of stories; you meet lots of nice people. You rarely meet someone that’s not nice. That’s a great thing about our city. I’ve never been in danger in seven and a half years. I’ve never felt threatened.

You’ve never felt under threat as a woman in this industry?
Never. I only work days, and I work a lot with the radio. A couple of times over the years, I might have had someone in the seat who made me feel anxious, because they were anxious. Like, say you pick up someone who called you late—they’re already late, and they’re making you feel that kind of pressure. That’s no fun; you can’t wait to get rid of them. But other than that, it’s just like any other job. All of us are out here. We all have lives and are paying bills, mortgages, raising kids, getting our kids through university. It’s a living.

If you could go back, would you still choose to be a cab driver?
I don’t say that I would not be a cab driver, and I don’t know how long I will be a cab driver. I was a legal secretary for years, and that’s something I don’t want to go back to. That says something, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s something else I’d like to do. Don’t know what that would be, but for now I’ll do this and see where it takes me.

Do you have any advice for other women in the industry?
Always ask the customer if they have a way they’d like to go. That’s really important. If someone’s not nice, just be very nice back to them. Try to enjoy the ride. Like I said, I very seldom have a problem. I think you’re going to see more women [drivers] in the next few years. Mark my words.