Why a Man Started a Ride-sharing Company Just for Women

Can Chariot for Women survive in the world of Uber and Lyft (and why didn't they think of this)?

This week, a ride-sharing service primarily for and by women will launch in Boston. Chariot for Women was founded by ex-Uber driver, 41-year-old Michael Pelletz. Pelletz loved driving for Uber, writes the Washington Post, but after hearing story after story of women being approached and harassed by male drivers, and hearing that not a single one of his fellow Uber drivers who were women felt comfortable ferrying passengers at night (based on his own anecdotal data), Pelletz felt compelled to act and decided to create a ride-sharing service just for women.

As for why a man believes he’s the right person to take on the issue of women’s safety in hired cars, Pelletz told The Washington Post he’s inspired by characters like Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman: “I saw that something in this movie,” he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “I was made to take care of women, to love them, respect them…I was meant to do this.” (Michael’s wife Kelly acts as the company’s president.)

'I was made to take care of women...I was made to do this' - Chariot for Women founder.

For this and other reasons, Chariot for Women (“Chariot”) has been getting a lot of media buzz: in the past couple of weeks, The New York Times, USA Today, ABC, Self magazine,The Huffington Post, and many other national and local news outlets have reported on the ready-to-launch service. (They might soon be known by a different name, though: Chariot is currently running a contest on their website to rename the company.)

Chariot may be facing a host of legal issues, and even if they overcome them, cutting out half of the population could potentially doom their bottom line. However, if a large portion of women are self-selecting out of both ride-sharing (both as passengers and as drivers), Pelletz may have found an untapped market Uber and Lyft haven’t been able to capitalize on. A lot of questions remain on the eve of Chariot’s launch, and if Chariot is able to operate, they’ll be the first successful single-gender ride-share service to do so.

Chariot for Women app
Photo from LA Times

Ride-sharing a Danger to Female Drivers and Passengers

Nick Allen, the co-founder of the now-defunct Sidecar told Forbes that women have self-selected out of driving for both Uber and Lyft because of safety concerns. Most major cities don’t keep track of taxi and ride-share driver assaults against passengers or passenger assaults against drivers, so while any evidence of how at risk women are is largely anecdotal, there have been high profile cases reported in cities across the country, and while men are certainly at risk too, the vast majority of the time, both physical and sexual assaults are committed by men against women—whether the victim is a passenger or a driver.

How Chariot for Women Works

The app will be available starting Tuesday, April 19, and it’ll function a lot like Uber and Lyft: riders can request a ride, see estimated fares, and even request larger vehicles (four seats or six). But Chariot will be unique from existing ride-share services in some important ways (from The Washington Post):

  • Accepts women, all children under the age of 13, and anyone identifying as a woman
  • Only women and those identifying as women can drive for Chariot
  • Pays a minimum of $25 per hour to all drivers
  • Drivers will be fingerprinted, background checks will be run by local law enforcement partners, and drivers will answer security questions each day to confirm their identities
  • Both passengers and drivers receive safe words they both must confirm before the ride can begin
  • No surge pricing
  • Chariot will donate two percent of every fare to charities that aid women

Is it Even Legal?

While plenty of women (and men) are applauding the introduction of a service intended to improve safe transportation for women, plenty of people and institutions are bringing potential legal issues to light, questioning whether the company will be allowed to operate while refusing to serve and employ certain people based on their sex–something that is almost always illegal. By law, business serving the public must do so without discrimination, so Chariot could be facing legal issues from both potential passengers and potential employees.

Lawyers interviewed by the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and other high-profile media outlets unanimously say they doubt the company’s business model will hold up against challenges to their employment practices.

Is it legal for Chariot for Women to refuse employment or service to men?

It seems Chariot’s refusal to hire men might be a bigger legal problem than their decision not to offer them rides. “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,” Joseph L. Sulman, an employment law specialist, told the Boston Globe. Past exceptions, writes the Boston Globe, have included prison guards, social workers at women’s shelters, and other places where intimate contact with women is part of the job description. However, the Boston Globe notes that businesses have won special dispensation in the past under Massachusetts state law—in 1996, for instance, the state Legislature created an exemption in state gender discrimination law for fitness facilities.

In response to criticism of their hiring practices, Chariot’s lawyer stated: “Courts have long held that hiring on the basis of sex is permissible where sex is a bona fide occupational qualification in the context of serving privacy interests. At stake here is more than just privacy — safety and security are also at issue. As such, we are confident that our hiring of women drivers constitutes a bona fide occupational qualification, where doing so is necessary to uphold the privacy, safety and security of our drivers and riders.”

If sued, the challenges could make their way through Massachusetts’ highest courts, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chariot’s founder isn’t worried: “We look forward to legal challenges. We want to show there’s inequality in safety in our industry. We hope to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to say that if there’s safety involved, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service for women,” Pelletz told Tech Crunch.

women lying on old car

When There’s Money to be Made

Perhaps most importantly: laws can and do change, especially when there’s money to be made. Airbnb changed New York City’s zoning laws, Facebook changed how we legislate privacy, and Uber itself is constantly in the press pushing legal boundaries and changing laws to accommodate its business model, writes Inc.

Adding women drivers has a lot of potential: in the US, only 14 percent of Uber drivers, 30 percent of Lyft drivers, and 12.7 percent of taxi drivers and chauffeurs are women (and in New York City, less than one percent of the cab drivers are women). If women drivers and riders feel safer with a company like Chariot and therefore take more ride-share jobs and hire more rides, there’s potentially a large share of the ride-share market to be capitalized upon.