'There Was a Stranger in My Own House': Is the Sharing Economy Safe for Women?
Women and minorities appear more likely to experience violence and discrimination on platforms like Uber and Airbnb. How did the gig economy go so wrong?
Illustration by Grace Wilson
When Shadi Petosky, a 41-year-old TV producer from Montana, tried to book an Airbnb rental in Minneapolis, she informed her host that she was a trans woman. "I don't want to end up in a space where someone bigoted punches me or causes a scene, so I always disclose [that I'm trans]."
Although Petosky has experienced transphobia before in her life, she was unprepared for the response she received. "I really appreciate your honesty," the prospective host said. "I'll have to pass though, but thank you. I have a 13 year old boy going through puberty. I don't want him to feel any discomforts [sic] in his own home."
"I think what really bothered me was the fact she said I couldn't stay there because of her kid," Petosky explains. "This idea that transgender people are somehow dangerous to children was really hurtful."
As a trans woman traveling solo, Petosky has to think about her personal safety more than most when renting an Airbnb. "I'm vulnerable to the sexual violence all women potentially face when travelling alone. But it's also like the rules of men apply to us, and the rules of women. I think a lot of marginalized people face this. You experience a lot of victimhood and violence, but so often things are twisted so you're painted as the perpetrator."
It was night-time and there was a stranger in my own house. I felt forced to give him extra money.
After Petosky tweeted about her experience, Airbnb banned the host in question, more than a year after the initial incident had passed. As part of new efforts to remove what it terms "unconscious bias" from the site, it has also hired its first-ever head of diversity.
"We have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination and when we become aware of it we take action," an spokesperson for Airbnb told Broadly, pointing to safety workshops for female users and additional training for employees and hosts. Though it's hard to argue Petosky encountered anything other than conscious discrimination, Airbnb is also running an ongoing internal review into how to eliminate unconscious bias.
If you're a woman or belong to a minority group—black, gay, Latino, Muslim, trans—there's often no space for you within the so-called sharing economy. Get in an Uber (or dare to drive one) and you may well be sexually harassed. Think it's safer to travel in numbers? Not if you're assaulted in an UberPool. Airbnb users have been raped and held against their will. Invite a Handy cleaner into your home and you may end up being extorted.
27-year-old Zoe* hired a Handy cleaner via the app last year. "He turned up late and was really aggressive from the start, telling me I couldn't live this way [so messily], getting angry when I asked him to clean the entrance hallway. I got freaked out so left, hoping when I came back he'd be gone, but he'd overstayed his time and ignored my repeated suggestions for him to leave." Eventually she paid an extra $40 for him to go. "It was night-time and there was a stranger in my own house. I felt forced to give him extra money."
"We are committed to the safety of our customers and professionals, do not tolerate this type of behavior from anyone using our platform, and when alerted to the rare cases where something goes wrong, Handy management responds quickly, sensitively and effectively," Handy told Broadly. "We remove customers and/or professionals from the platform when merited by the facts, and would have removed the professional in this case."
The life-blood of the sharing economy is the idea that the public space is a safe space, wherein individuals can open up their homes to strangers and reap the financial and cultural dividends. Airbnb's mission statement talks of "returning us to a place where everyone can feel they belong." It also describes the house as "just as space." But for women and marginalized groups the world over, houses are much more than spaces: They are retreats, sanctuaries from a world where public space remains dangerous, contested territory.
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray of Durham University, UK, has studied the sexual harassment of women in public spaces. "When it comes to public spaces, women are forced to moderate their desire for freedom and safety. In order to feel safe, you have to restrict your freedom, whether it's not walking down a street alone late at night, or not using Airbnb because you're a lone woman and you don't think it's safe."
"Have you heard of the just-world hypothesis?" she adds. "It's the idea that if everyone comes together and shares, it's going to be beneficial. The world is essentially just. So if you're a man who's been brought up to see the world as a safe space, as a fair space, a space that people can move and interact in freely, then you'll have that view. Of course, if you've ever experienced structural inequality you know that we live in a culture where if you move in a way expecting the world to be safe, and it isn't, you end up being punished and victim-blamed."
If you're a woman trying to make money in the sharing economy, you may find that—even in your own apartment—men find a way of taking up all the space. "After a year of hosting over a hundred guests," former Airbnb host Erika Karnes tells Broadly, "I quickly stopped renting to single men. It just felt too uncomfortable.
"Men definitely took the liberty to 'fill' the space. They unpacked among my living room, stacked beers throughout my fridge, tucked their toiletries around my medicine cabinet. They even combed through my belongings and books, helping themselves to my music collection. Especially compared to women. They'd spread their belongings, energy—even bodies—throughout the entire apartment."
Although some of the early founders of the sharing economy were women (Leah Busque founded TaskRabbit, Adora Cheung co-founded cleaning platform Homejoy, and Robin Chase co-founded ZipCar), women and minority groups remain shut out from the vast financial lucre of the sharing economy. None of the major players, such as Uber, Airbnb or Handy were founded or are currently helmed by women.
That's the job you can fit around your children, whereas driving an Uber isn't going to mesh so well with your domestic responsibilities.
The industry is simultaneously plagued by frat boy antics better associated with the tech bros on the TV comedy Silicon Valley: An Uber senior executive once suggested digging up dirt on the personal life of a female journalist who was critical of the company (he later apologized), while Airbnb stands accused of trampling over local laws with impunity. In 2014, Uber France apologized for running a promotion that promised men free rides with "an incredibly hot chick" as driver.
Men are the generals and the foot soldiers alike of the sharing economy, with women their literal handmaids. While Uber drivers are overwhelmingly male and are paid on average more than $19 an hour, workers on the female-dominated Handy app are paid less for arduous work that include anything from doing the laundry to scrubbing floors.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Handy said that Handy cleaners make an average of more than $18 per hour. "More than 80 percent of customers and more than 90 percent of the professionals using the Handy platform are women—making Handy one of the most female-driven platforms in the tech space."
Former Harvard professor Juliet Schor specializes in the gendered economics of labor. "My sense is that there are a set of platforms that are mostly single gendered (Etsy), some that are mixed (Airbnb), some have a skew (Uber, Lyft)," she tells me over the phone. "To date I'd say that the sharing economy platforms tend to replicate the gender distribution of the larger labor market and division of labor, including non-market labor. On race, they were originally much 'whiter' than the larger labor market, but as they grow they are starting to reproduce it more. We find that on the more remunerative sites, the labor force is whiter. As you go downmarket to sites that pay less, they get more diverse racially."
Like Handy, Etsy is a platform where the majority of workers are female. But while 86 per cent of sellers are women, only 30 percent make enough money from the site to use it as their sole source of income—the majority combine their Etsy income with other sources of revenue. According to the site's own statistics, the majority (56 percent) of these female workers are college educated. So why are they so over-qualified and under-paid?
Dr Clare Chambers of Cambridge University feels that the Etsy figures mirror the general undervaluing of women's work by society. "If you look at the traditional economy, jobs done by women tend to be paid less than jobs done by men: so refuse collectors earn more than childcare workers, that sort of thing. There's probably quite a bit of that going on in the Etsy case, where women are not valuing the time involved in making their products properly and charging market prices."
In response, an Etsy spokesperson told Broadly, "running a full-time creative business is not a universal aspiration of Etsy sellers—the goals and objectives of Etsy sellers are as diverse as the products they sell", and highlighted guides that instruct sellers on how to price their work fairly.
Chambers explains that the domestic and caring responsibilities faced by many women mean that they are more likely to take on flexible work that is poorly paid. "It's not just the Etsy model, but all the selling-to-friends schemes like Herbalife and so on. That's the job you can fit around your children, whereas driving an Uber isn't going to mesh so well with your domestic responsibilities."
It's not really fashionable to be in favour of bureaucracy and rules, but equal pay for equal work... and anti-discrimination laws were the results of years of struggle.
Though the rhetoric that underpins the sharing economy talks of inclusivity and community, dig a little deeper and you enter a world founded on the most masculine of political theories: neoliberalism. What's Yours Is Mine author Tom Slee advocates for greater regulation of the sharing economy, arguing that stripping out management and bureaucracy actually makes things more insecure and dangerous for women and minorities.
"It's not really fashionable to be in favour of bureaucracy and rules, but equal pay for equal work, minimum wage laws, employment standards that limit employers' right to fire at will, and anti-discrimination laws were the results of years of struggle by feminists, unionists, and anti-racism groups," he says. "I don't think they should be thrown away just because a new app has a rating system."
The drawbacks of the sharing economy don't just affect consumers' safety—it also affects the workers involved. Palak Shah of the National Domestic Workers Alliance says that a rating system "can result in workers completing a job when they don't feel safe, for fear of receiving a poor rating and less work." While sharing economy platforms such as Handy aren't to blame for the job insecurity historically faced by domestic workers, "online economy companies are using legal ambiguity to take advantage of workers and maximize profits, hence the on-going cases challenging worker classification within the online economy."
If you're not classified as a direct employee of companies like Handy and Uber, you are rarely eligible for workplace benefits such as sick pay or maternity leave, both of which are benefits that disproportionately affect women.
Meanwhile, technology companies resist moves that could make things safer for women. Tom Slee highlights how one obvious solution—installing cameras in Ubers—has been ignored by the company. "They're resisting the move because it would be a cost barrier to new drivers: a pretty clear example of women's safety being of secondary importance for the company." Uber has also rejected another possible solution in giving women the opportunity to request female drivers, like the service offered by French company BlaBlaCar.
Most technology companies respond to these objections by claiming that their software or services aren't racist, sexist, or transphobic—society is. But as Slee points out, "If you're a company worth about the same as General Motors (Uber) or Marriott Hotels (Airbnb), you have responsibilities, and those responsibilities include non-discrimination on your platform." He highlights a ProPublica study from May 2016 that demonstrates that algorithms are capable of being bIas. "Algorithms based on correlations always entrench face the risk of entrenching existing behaviours."
The structure of sharing economy companies itself creates a disincentive for companies to stamp out discrimination. "Their model has two components: One is to take a slice out of every transaction in order to make money. The second component is to avoid the costs of responsibility: The platforms maintain that they are not responsible when things go wrong."
While the companies are generally swift to respond when cases hit the media, a light-touch approach to issues around safety and workplace rights is favorable for their business model. "Airbnb has said it takes racism very seriously, but it's not clear the company has any idea how to solve the problem in a manner that doesn't disturb their business model, which relies on how easy it is for hosts to sign up and for guests to get a place to stay."
Minorities are most likely to experience discrimination, whether it's the Airbnb host rejecting a trans person's booking or a disabled person who is refused service by an Uber driver. After neighbors called the police on 27-year-old Stefan Grant when he checked into an Airbnb rental, he and partner Ronnia Cherry, 30, co-founded Noirbnb to provide an alternate solution. "We realized there was a lack of concern for the safety and comfort of black travellers. We decided to step in and fill that void ourselves," he says.
"When the companies who play big roles in the sharing economy actually start to listen to people of color and understand the different perspectives, that will definitely cut down on discrimination. It's a balance between society and technology. Human beings create technology, but there needs to be more diversity when it comes to the creators of said technology."
Dr Vera-Gray agrees that the solution isn't to patch up the existing algorithms or appoint highly paid executives with the word 'diversity' in their titles. Rather, we need to radically rethink the worldview underpinning these apps. "The technology isn't necessarily the problem. It's the attitudes behind it. What we need to do is take a step back and change the practices that are creating the un-safety in that technology.
"Rather than just installing a 'report abuse' button, let's invest money in prevention efforts which stop men being able to use the technology in abusive and oppressive ways."
* Name has been changed
Update: The feature has been updated to include a response from Handy to an incident outlined in the piece.
- sexual assault
- Sharing Economy
- Longform Editorial
- Broadly Culture