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Female Ojek Drivers Struggle to Find Acceptance on City Streets

The biggest pain for Indonesian women working in the online ojek industry isn't the traffic, it's the men who keep cancelling their orders because they don't want a woman driver.
Illustration by Dini Lestari

The streets of Jakarta are the city's great equalizer. That rich guy sitting in the back of his chauffeured Toyota Alphard, that office worker on his Honda motorbike, those sweating passengers jammed into that rusting green Kopaja, all of them are stuck in the same soul-sucking traffic jams for at least an hour a day.

But this equality only goes so far. Just ask Ratna Susanto. The 41-year-old mother of six spends her days running a modest restaurant in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta. But in the evenings she's busy with her side-hustle, working as an ojek driver in Indonesia's massive online ride-sharing industry. Ratna spends her nights on the road, ferrying passengers on the back of her red Honda Vario motorbike across the city. Or, at least, she tries to, but her passengers keep cancelling their orders once they see she's a woman.


"I'm worried about getting cancelled by male customers," she told VICE. "Most older men cancel their order once they find out I'm a woman."

Most nights, Ratna is lucky if she drops off six passengers in eight hours—a figure well-below the minimum number required by GO-JEK, Grab, and Uber to receive a bonus for a night's work. She's tried her luck with multiple on-demand ride-share apps, hopping from one company to the next, with the hopes that by changing the apps, she can change her fortune too. But the problem remains the same—a sign that it's the customers themselves, not the companies, that are at fault.

"My fortune with GO-JEK and Grab is the same," she told VICE. "I get cancelled up to ten times a day, every single time by a male customers. A lot of the time, they don't even cancel right away. They do it when they see me in-person and realize I'm a woman."

VICE interviewed seven female drivers across Indonesia's three largest on-demand ride-share companies—GO-JEK, Grab, and Uber. The women all told our reporter that they struggle to compete with their male peers. The reason? Sexist beliefs of customers who think that a woman shouldn't work in the taxi industry, that it's too dangerous, or that male passengers feel would "uncomfortable" with a woman behind the wheel.

"It's a big deal since the company may think that we get cancelled due to incompetency," Ratna told VICE. "The more often you get cancelled, the more difficult it is to earn bonus, and they often even cut your percentages due to low performance. The working system doesn't really recognize which customers are the one who are cancelling."


Companies like GO-JEK and Grab have been applauded in the press for providing a way out of the informal sector for millions of working class Indonesians. Before the arrival of ride-share apps, the ojek industry was largely unregulated, fiercely territorial, and characterized by long days spent waiting on the corner under the tropical sun. Today, the days are still long, and the sun is still hot, but many of the same drivers now have access to bank accounts, health insurance, and a greater sense of economic stability.

Ratna Susanto. Photo by author

The change is most-obvious in the ojek industry. The big three ride-share companies have all been the focus of protests and claims that they were pricing out local taxi operators and private car rentals with heavily subsidized fares. But while the disruption of the taxi and car rental industries is a bit more complicated, the effect on the country's ojek drivers is less so. By formalizing an informal sector, these companies are helping pull millions out of poverty.

"This kind of activity provides a bit of a buffer to move people a bit further from the bottom of the poverty line, and creates a more stable income as a result," Cassey Lee, a senior fellow with the Regional Economic Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told Channel News Asia.

But not everyone has been affected equally. Male ojek drivers were always the norm, and today, even with these new technologies, they still out-perform female drivers, according to the women interviewed by VICE. It's a sign that no matter how "disruptive" the tech industry is, the "new way" of doing things can still reflect the inherent prejudices of the "old way."


"The job market is dripping with stereotypes," Adriana Venny Aryani, of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), told VICE. "Women are considered less competent, less physically strong, and thus many companies are reluctant to hire women.

"As a result, men are considered more productive. Companies have opened the job market as wide as possible for women. But [women] are being thrown to the free market without identifying their specific problems."

Ratna Susanto. Photo by author

We reached out to each of the big three to ask if we could see data on cancellation rates. None of the companies were willing to share their data with us, explaining that it was for internal use only. Our reporter asked how granular the data was—did it, for example, compare cancellation rates between male and female drivers? GO-JEK declined to comment. A spokesman at Grab said he was unsure whether their analytics broke down drivers by gender. Uber told our reporter that their data didn't identify the gender of their drivers.

Issues like this are often difficult to spot in the data, because the state and private companies often don't track trend lines by gender, Venny explained.

"Women have specific needs and therefore require supportive infrastructure, however this is something that the state or a company may not be willing to provide," Venny said. "Many female drivers get cancelled and therefore are entitled to smaller bonuses. The company should pay attention to the discrepancies between men and women's income."

So how do female ojek drivers deal with all the rejection?

Vivi Ristyana, who drives for Uber, told us that she refuses to stay silent when men cancel on her just because she's a woman. Male customers sometimes tell her they "feel sorry to make a woman drive such a far distance." "Sometimes I ask the customer, 'why should you feel sorry for me?'" Vivi told VICE. "It's my choice to do this job."

Asima Manalu, a 35-year-old widow and mother of two, told our reporter that men cancel on her an average of once-to-twice a day while driving for GO-JEK. "When I get cancelled, I just say, 'Thank you, sir, for cancelling me,'" she said. Asima told our reporter that getting cancelled so often hurt. She wished men would just treat her the same as any other ojek driver out there.

"When it comes to drivers, the women need the job more than the men since we don't have many other options left," she told VICE. "So please, if you come across a female driver, don't cancel. I don't have the power. I can't choose the customer, I can't just accept the female customers."