My Uber app offers options to hail a ride from Pool, uberX, uberXL, UberBLACK, UberSUV, uberTAXI, and uberX+Car Seat. As a Washington, D.C., rider I can choose how many people I ride with, what kind of vehicle I hire, the level of professionalism of the driver, and even get a car equipped to schlep kids.
What I can't choose is the gender of my driver: There's no such thing as UberXX.
A new company, set to launch next week, aims to test the business and legal landscape for offering a female-only* car service to compete with Uber. Chariot for Women is a Boston-based company that will hire only female drivers and will pick up only female passengers.
Just one problem: What Chariot wants to offer almost certainly illegal. The same anti-discrimination laws that are supposed to protect women also prevent them from being able to buy and sell what they want. And that sucks.
"To limit employees to one gender, you have to have what the law calls a bona fide occupational qualification. And that's a really strict standard," employment law specialist Joseph L. Sulman told The Boston Globe. "The law's really tough on that. For gender, it's not enough to say, 'we really just want to have a female here because our customers prefer that to feel safer.'"
The Globe reports that refusal to accept male passengers could cause (likely lesser) legal problems as well. "Companies that provide a service need to accept potential customers without discriminating," said lawyer Dahlia C. Rudavsky.
The same laws that are supposed to protect women are actually preventing women customers from getting what they want and potentially keeping some women out of the workforce altogether. This is an unavoidable consequence of using the blunt instrument of the law to prevent unsavory discriminatory behavior—you also remove all kinds of morally neutral or even praiseworthy decisions from the hands of citizens, workers, customers, and entrepreneurs.
As an ovary-haver, I can think of a handful of occasions over the years on which I would have paid a premium to be picked up by a female driver—nearly all of them involving the consumption of too much booze. Granted, that preference is mostly irrational: my chances of getting done wrong by an Uber driver (or a taxi driver) in a gender-specific way are very, very low.
BUT! Preferences are frequently irrational (see: getting drunk in the first place). Heck, last week I brought a granola bar that claimed to somehow cater to the fact that I have female biology. How? I have no idea. But it had cranberries in it and I liked the packaging. (Ugh ladies, amirite?)
Many women likely have an even more robust preference for lady drivers than I do. Perhaps riders prefer to chat with women, they'd rather have a female-curated playlist on their ride, or they think women are better drivers. Perhaps they need to borrow a tampon. I don't know. What's more, women who want to work as drivers have a very clear incentive to want only female passengers—there are many documented cases passengers ill-treating their drivers. But a safety rationale is far for from the only legitimate reason for entrepreneurial innovation.
Of course, if we accept the legality of catering to the mostly irrational preference of some customers for female drivers and vice-versa, we also have to accept similarly irrational preferences about gender and other protected categories, like race and sexual orientation. And that's where the rubber hits the road. But if you want to force this guy to bake gay wedding cakes or force Amazon to close its pay gap, you also probably can't have your safer, friendlier women-centered car service. It might be trade off you're willing to make, but it is a trade-off.
Personally, I'd love to celebrate Equal Pay Day (today apparently!) by spending a little extra dosh to be ferried around while schnockered by a enterprising gig-economy gal in a pink Cadillac. Unfortunately for both me and my would-be chauffeuse, the same forces that aim to protect women from discrimination wind up preventing customers and workers from making choices that would be more desirable for both parties—and command a premium to boot!
While an Uber spokeswoman opted not to comment on whether the big brand in ridesharing had considered getting into the ladies-only market, on borderline occasions, I'm still going to favor Uber over a traditional taxi, since the drivers are better identified, more traceable, less likely/able to scam a drunk lady on the fare, already know my address, and already have my payment details.
Plus Uber cars typically smell better that taxis, which can be highly relevant at moments of intoxication. UberXX cars would probably smell amazing. Too bad.
* Chariot's founders have already thought of most of your clever objections to their model: Yes, boys under the age of 13 can ride with their mothers; yes, trans women will be accepted as drivers and passengers; yes, the drivers will pass extra background checks because women can be violent assholes too. They'll even donate a portion of your fare to a lady-friendly charity.
UPDATE: Obviously, UberXXX would be a whole different deal. But that should be legal too!