Are Women-Only Car Services Legal?

Many automobile companies are challenging the legal grounds for the recent initiatives that are supposed to make women safer during taxi drives.  They pose a historically loaded question: is this discriminatory?

In Massachusetts, Chariot for Women is promising to launch a service that would provide female drivers for picking up only women and children. Drivers will even have to say a “safe word” before a ride begins.

Michael Pelletz, a former Uber driver, said he started the company with his wife, Kelly, in response to the rise in assault by taxi drivers. Pelletz believes his business plan is perfectly legal as well as beneficial, and he’s prepared to argue his case in court if prompted. “We believe that giving women and their loved ones peace of mind is not only a public policy imperative, but serves an essential social interest,” Pelletz said. “Our service is intended to protect these fundamental liberties.”

In New York City, the owners of SheRides also announced that they would go back in business. Fernando Mateo, who co-founded the company with his wife, Stella, said the company stopped its planned launch in 2014 after spending “tens of thousands” on legal fees as activists and male drivers threatened to sue. The company settled one challenge, he said. “We were accused of all sorts of things,” Mateo said. “So we went back to the drawing board.”

When the company re-launches as SheHails, men will also be passengers. It will be up to the female drivers to accept male passengers.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.46.31 PMWhile taxis driven by and for women are common in Dubai and India, such companies would likely be removed in the United States because of anti-discrimination laws. Major ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft don’t give customers the option of requested a driver based on gender. The Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a trade group, says companies differ on whether a female can request a female driver. “The safety issue is a really big deal,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “But you just can’t discriminate. You can’t turn people away.”

On the employment side, the federal Civil Rights Act bans gender-based hiring except when absolutely necessary. Courts have interpreted that “bona fide occupational qualification” clause rather narrowly, said Elizabeth Brown, a business law professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Prisons, for instance, have been allowed to hire female guards in certain situations, but the airline industry was ordered to end the practice of hiring only women as flight attendants in a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

It is also a question as to whether the 1964 civil rights law applies in this case. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the law, declined to comment on the legality of women-only ride-hailing services. But spokeswoman Justine Lisser mentioned that employers whose workers are independent contractors, as is the case with Mateo and Pelletz’s companies, are often outside the scope where the contractors are llowed to interfere. On the consumer end, Massachusetts and many other states have anti-gender discrimination laws governing “public accommodations” like transportation services. But those, too, leave room for exceptions. In Massachusetts, for example, women’s-only gyms won a special legislative carve-out in 1998.

Michelle Sicard, a Granby, Massachusetts, resident who recently signed up as a Chariot for Women driver, said that she isn’t worried about the legal debate. “I don’t think it’s discriminating against anyone. It’s another way to make women feel safe,” said the 33-year-old postal worker. “I just think people overthink things and everything becomes a battle of the sexes.”

But Harry Campbell, an Uber and Lyft driver in Los Angeles who runs The Rideshare Guy, a blog and podcast, believes that the service could be a “slippery slope” to other forms of discrimination.

More thorough background checks could be a more beneficial alternative, he said. “There are likely passengers who would feel more comfortable with drivers who are the same race or same ethnicity, so where do we draw the line?” Campbell said.

Ashley Barnett, a 24-year-old from Somerville, said it’s “well intended” but evades the greater societal issue — people’s attitudes toward women. “It’s a solution to a problem that’s way bigger than transportation,” she said.

Carolina Quintanilla, a 22-year-old from Boston, said that there is still no guarantee for safety, even if the passenger and driver are the same sex. “There are crazy women out there, too,” Quintanilla said. “You never really know nobody’s intentions. You have to trust your instincts.” Nonetheless, she said that the service would be good for nighttime use.

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