In 2012, shortly after Uber started operating in Los Angeles, Rachel Galindo bought a new car and signed up as a driver. She had worked as a journeyman carpenter, but contractors who used to hire her stopped calling after she transitioned her gender. Driving for Uber, Galindo hoped to avoid transphobia — after all, the company’s own billboards made the tantalizing promise: “Be your own boss.”
The harassment began almost immediately.
On three separate occasions, she said, passengers got into her car and, without saying anything else, simply asked, “How much for a BJ?” Another passenger kept referring to her as “it” during the ride and, when Galindo asked her to stop, the passenger responded, “Well, I just don’t know ‘what’ you are.”
She repeatedly complained to Uber about such incidents, but she said the company would only respond using generic emails — it took three years of lodging regular complaints for an actual Uber employee to call Galindo on the phone to discuss the repeated harassment.
“I kept crying for help,” she said. “But no one was listening.”
Galindo said that she sees parallels between her experience and that of Susan Fowler, the former engineer at Uber’s corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley who published a blog post in February detailing a culture of sexual harassment inside Uber. Within hours, the company had sprung into action: Board member Arianna Huffington demanded an investigation; the company retained former attorney general Eric Holder to head up an inquiry; and CEO Travis Kalanick called a company-wide meeting, where he reportedly began crying with remorse. (Neither Huffington nor Holder responded to request for comment.)
Watching the Fowler scandal unfold, Galindo said she couldn’t help but feel overlooked. “I do think Susan [Fowler] and I were victims of the same ‘bro-fraternity’ culture at Uber,” she said. “But for us female drivers, it’s different than with engineers. The company views us as expendable, as having no value at all.”
Uber is now in the midst of a company-wide review of its sexual harassment policies. Although the review was supposed to wind down last month, in a memo to Uber staff in late April Huffington said that Holder was going to take until the end of May “to ensure that no stone is left unturned.” Despite the promise of a thorough investigation, a company spokesperson confirmed that the sexual harassment review only includes the treatment of its full-time employees like Fowler. Drivers like Galindo, the spokesperson said, don’t qualify because they are contract workers.
Only a small fraction of women who make their living from Uber, however, are in Fowler’s position. The company technically only employs around 2,000 women. The vast majority of women who make their living from Uber are independent contract drivers like Galindo. The company, which only releases driver data selectively, typically when it seems to serve the company’s PR goals, reported that around 20% of its drivers were female, and that it had signed up 230,000 new female drivers in 2015. It has promised that, by 2020, more than a million women will be driving for the platform, an important milestone as Uber competes for women riders with startups like the female-focused Safr.