Can Uber For Women Survive A Discrimination Challenge?
February 2, 2017 (Fault Lines) — It seems like a good idea in theory: an Uber-like service for women that connects female riders and drivers.
Safr (previously called Chariot for Women), announced its March launch in a press release, saying it plans to expand beyond Boston into other major U.S. cities later this year.
But Safr could face an uphill legal battle. Civil rights lawyers say the new ride-hailing service, designed to connect “female drivers exclusively with female riders,” would probably conflict with Massachusetts’ antidiscrimination laws.
“Ideas that sound great — and this does sound great — have to meet the tests that are set forth in the law,” Joseph L. Sulman, a civil rights lawyer in Newton, told the Boston Globe “If you replace the word ‘women’ with ‘white’ or ‘black,’ it reads very differently.”
The company first appeared in the news when founder (and former Uber driver) Michael Pelletz announced its launch as “Chariot for Women” last March. Pelletz was inspired to launch the “female driven” ride-hailing service after a particularly drunk and belligerent passenger got him thinking about how a female driver would have felt in the same scenario. The unpleasant encounter also made him consider the safety concerns faced by female passengers.
The safety of female passengers has been a persistent headache for Uber and Lyft. Earlier this year, former Uber driver Abderrahim Dakiri was convicted in Boston after sexually assaulting an intoxicated female passenger. The case raised new questions about how the growing ride-sharing service screens its drivers. Since then, regulators around the country are debating new requirements for ride-hailing services that include background check procedures.
That being said, civil rights lawyers have been vocal about the fact that it would be difficult for Safr to win a discrimination lawsuit.
“Companies that provide a service need to accept potential customers without discriminating,” said Dahlia K. Rudavsky.
There’s nothing wrong with advertising particularly to a female customer base. But if a company goes further and refuses to pick up a man, I think they’d potentially run into legal trouble.
According to Sulman, refusing to hire men as drivers could pose an even more formidable legal challenge to Safr’s business model:
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. 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.”
Exceptions that could qualify, Sulman said, could include prison guards or social workers at women’s shelters, “places where there’s constant or near-constant close contact with only women. And not just contact, but intimate contact, which is a part of your job.”
Safr’s head of marketing told the Boston Globe that Safr is “mindful” of the issues and is working with its legal advisers “to make sure that we are in compliance with the laws.”