OPINION: Will women return to ride-hailing after the coronavirus pandemic?

by Alexa Roscoe | @AlexaRoscoe | International Finance Corporation (IFC)
Wednesday, 17 June 2020 12:39 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman wearing a Uber T-shirt checks her phone while Uber riders and driver-partners take part in a rally on the steps of New York City Hall June 30, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COVID-19 risks undoing decades of progress for women, but there are ways to maintain women’s hard-won successes in labor force participation

Alexa Roscoe is the Disruptive Technologies Lead at IFC’s Gender and Economic Inclusion Group

Increasing evidence shows COVID-19 risks undoing decades of progress for women. Women are often in jobs which are informal or in sectors like retail or tourism that are heavily impacted by the pandemic. Loss of childcare and increased responsibilities at home represent a “parallel crisis” that could keep even more women from the workforce.  

However, as markets reopen, the question is not just whether women will have jobs and businesses to go back to, but whether they can get there safely.    

Both questions are particularly relevant to ride-hailing, where women risk losing out on the tenuous hold that they’ve gained in the industry. As an increasing part of the transport ecosystem, it’s crucial for ride-hailing companies to look to products and policies that support women as drivers and riders.   

In 2018, IFC found that women made up to five percent often one percent or less of ride-hailing drivers—not atypical for the transport sector, where women face barriers ranging from stringent social norms to legal restrictions. At the same time, access to ride-hailing can help women enter a sector in which they are underrepresented. It can also increase women freedom of movement by about 25 percent, supporting their economic opportunities.

There are several steps companies can take to ensure women return to ride-hailing as the sector reopens. 

First, a new study by IFC finds that more companies are innovating products that particularly appeal to women, or increasingly, are for women specifically. For instance, Uber’s “Women Rider Preference” feature allows women drivers to opt-in to indicate a preference for receiving only women riders in select markets. In Saudi Arabia, the model helped more women transition into the sector after the legalization of driving. In Brazil, more than half of women drivers who participated in this pilot drove more overall and at night, when it’s hardest to get women on the road. While there is an active debate on whether these models succeed in supporting women in the long-term, features designed specifically for women will continue to be promoted.

Women spend more of their income on transport, so options where multiple passengers share rides, or affordable services like motorcycles or three-wheelers, better meet their needs. However, there are still many markets where shared options are not available. As COVID-19 retreats and close contact becomes more viable, expanding options for shared and low-cost services will have larger benefits for women.

Second, women often choose when, where, and how to travel based on safety and security. For ride-hailing companies, this should mean not only continuous innovation in safety features, but also increased collective action as a sector, including sharing, reporting, and aggregating safety and incident data. This is an issue that needs less competition and far more collaboration.

Third, all these actions need to be backed by more and better sex-disaggregated data: progress cannot be made if women’s participation in the sector is not routinely tracked and used to make improvements in core services.

As economies reopen, we need to work hard to maintain women’s hard-won successes in labor force participation. Inclusive transportation needs to be part of that equation. Ride-hailing alone will not provide a single solution, but by better serving women, the sector can help get markets moving.