Shebah, a new women-only ride sharing company in Australia.
There are always a few hiccups when a start-up launches, but the founder of female-only ride sharing company Shebah wasn’t expecting 45 minutes of abuse from a customer when her app didn’t work properly on its launch date.
“She tore strips off me,” says Georgina McEncroe, who launched Shebah only three months ago.
Towards the end of the tirade, McEncroe asked the caller if she was all right and the reason for the woman’s anger and distress became apparent.
The woman was an assault survivor and the trauma had kept her housebound. “She was a shut-in and she had just been waiting for Shebah to launch so she could leave the house,” says McEncroe.
In its short life, the Shebah app has been downloaded 12,000 times and 1,400 women have begun the process of registering to be drivers, suggesting strong demand.
Shebah now has 370 active drivers, mainly in Queensland and Victoria at this stage, but also in Sydney. McEncroe wants to take the service national in 18 months.
Ride sharing is a $6bn industry in Australia and women only have 10% of it, McEncroe says. However, women-only taxi and ride sharing services have launched in the UK, the US, New Zealand, Canada, Egypt, Pakistan and Oman.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for a gender-segregated transport, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
Almost two complaints per month of sexual harassment were forwarded to the Taxi Services Commission, according to a freedom of information request by the Herald Sun two years ago and one complaint “of a sexual nature” was made every week to Transport for NSW in 2010.
Uber, with its cashless transactions and driver identification, is not immune from complaints of this nature, with arrests of UberX drivers in Sydney and Melbourne.
According to Uber, over two and a half years, it received 170 messages from passengers around the world about sexual assault. The company is currently involved in a high profile lawsuit, following the 2014 rape of a woman by her Uber driver in India.
Sexual assault statistics are known to be affected by under-reporting and McEncroe’s teenage daughter and her friends have plenty of stories of their own: one tells of being grabbed by the throat by a driver who tried to kiss her, others tell of being driven places they didn’t want to go towhile another had a driver who tried to “crack on” to her and, when she refused, drove to a McDonald’s drive-through and tried to buy her food.
They have no idea what it is like to be a woman, in a car by herself, with an angry drunk male that outweighs you.
“When she rejected him again, he called her a dumb slut,” says McEncroe. When she asked the girls whether they reported any of this, they say they would not because the drivers knew where they lived and had their information.
Some alarming rides home comprise incidents that are not “reportable”. For example, McEncroe’s daughter was a passenger in the back seat and had to watch as the driver kept looking in the rear mirror and slowly licking his lips at her.
“When do you take lip-licking to the cops? It is not an assault. You can’t legislate against lip-licking,” McEncroe says. “But he knows what he is doing. What made him think that was cool or anything less than creepy and disgusting?”
McEncroe is not aiming for Shebah to be a direct competitor to Uber. Some of her drivers work for both companies. She sees it as an adjunct to the bigger company.
She says she hopes the proven demand will encourage the taxi and ridesharing industry to improve safety for all drivers and passengers, male and female.
This is a view shared by Rae Cooper, associate professor in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney business school.
Cooper says increasing the gender diversity, with more female drivers in this case, and making workplaces safer for women improves safety for men as well. “It lifts all the boats,” she says.
Cooper says, in preparation for her interview with The Guardian, she asked her Facebook friends whether they felt safe in taxis and UberX cars.
“I got about 20 comments immediately, emphasising that there is a very serious structural problem that is widespread, which is women feeling that they are at risk when they are travelling – particularly of an evening – and many of whom reporting really dangerous things happening to them, even coming home from work in taxis,” she says.
“It is very sad that there is a market for it, but there is. I think we will see the development of services for particular segments and women are a pretty powerful high-spending group in some areas.”
In Brisbane, Ashley Kerlin drives for both UberX and Shebah and says she has had two threatening experiences with Uber. The first was when a passenger started talking about sexual topics and then tried to get her to go into his house for sex, exposing himself to her as part of his invitation.
The other incident was with a drunk man who started swearing and threatening her when she took a wrong turn because he had incorrectly entered his destination in the app.
“A lot of blokes say you [should] just pull over and tell them to get out of your car. It is not that easy. When your car is your livelihood, it is not just your personal safety, it is how many thousands of dollars it is going to cost you if you are off the road because they get out of your car and start kicking it in.
“There are lots of blokes who say ‘You should just do this’, but they are fricking clueless. They have no idea what it is like to be a woman, in a car by herself, with an angry drunk male that outweighs you. It is an incredibly disabling feeling,” she says.
McEncroe says one of the most common bits of feedback she gets from her passengers about Shebah is that they can finally sit in the front seat of the car – like men do.
Women are often advised to sit in the back seat of taxis, she says. “That pisses me off. We are adult women. Children sit in the back seat and I am not a child. We should be able to sit anywhere we like … except in the boot.”