Since taking the helm of UN Women, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has repeatedly stated that part of her work with the organization would include intelligently integrating technology where possible in the push to achieve gender equality in all areas of society. As evidence of her commitment, she gave opening remarks at this year's UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2015, which UN Women co-sponsored, and focused on how mobile technology might be used to facilitate educational opportunities for girls and women worldwide. Just two days after we marked International Women's Day 2015, UN Women announced its involvement in another historic partnership - this time with Uber. "WHAT?!" is what I initially thought when I heard this, too! But, this seems to be quite a clever move from Mlambo-Ngcuka and company.
For those who somehow may not have heard of Uber, it is essentially both a ridesharing and taxi service that enables users and service providers to connect all through a mobile phone app. Money never exchanges hands since riders can pay using platforms such as PayPal. So what do UN Women and Uber now have in common?
Creating lasting job opportunities for women. Together, these two global organizations are pledging to create one million jobs for women by the year 2020 via the Uber platform. A video on the Uber website which accompanies the partnership announcement highlights stories of female Uber drivers from Nairobi, London and Bogotá.
These spokeswomen share how being a driver with Uber opened up new economic opportunities for them while also enabling them to have more control over their time, both of which are persistent challenges as far as gender equality issues are concerned.
In theory, I think the partnership is a great idea. Both organizations make gains in numbers that they can be proud of, as one million women employed through Uber should hopefully also mean that millions more women feel comfortable accessing more affordable private transportation via their mobile phone. This is because in many places all over the world, women feel much more secure with female drivers if using private transport.
My one big hesitation with this is that nowhere in this partnership announcement does Uber - or shockingly UN Women - mention how they might also work to prevent violence against women at the hands of Uber drivers. In New Delhi, India and a few cities in the UnitedStates, we have recently seen harrowing tales of trusting female passengers raped by drivers who took advantage of their unsuspecting customers in the worst possible way. A critique on the partnership from Jessica Goldstein of ThinkProgress points out the irony in Uber championing gender equality when the company itself has only one woman on its leadership team.
If Uber and UN Women want to achieve real impact with their partnership, then change not only needs to start at home with Uber, but also UN Women should push its partner to do more to ensure the safety of female passengers who "shave the stache" and use their service. Having more female drivers is a great solution, but still only a solution that could be partially effective for addressing persistent gender equality issues. Prioritizing the elimination of violence against women in Uber cars, including by educating male drivers and better screening the entire Uber workforce, should form the foundation of the UN Women's work with the tech company. Otherwise WHAT are they really partnering for?!