04/30/2015 07:49 EDT | Updated 06/30/2015 05:59 EDT

Why a Partnership Between Uber and the UN Could Have Empowered Women

An UBER application is shown as cars drive by in Washington, DC on March 25, 2015. Uber said it was ramping up safety in response to rape allegations against a driver in India and growing concerns about background checks for operators of the popular ride-sharing service. In other cities where Uber operates, critics had complained that a lack of licensing and background checks of drivers could imperil those who use the service. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Just two weeks after Uber and UN Women launched a partnership to create one-million jobs for women, the partnership evaporated. Following an angry letter urging UN Women to "dump" Uber, UN Women has done just that. But to what end?

The letter from the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) expresses outrage over promoting Uber's model -- a cashless, app-based driving service -- as a vehicle for gender equality. This model, according to the ITF, creates a "precarious workforce" by contracting with amateur, unprotected and independent drivers. "Women deserve better than a shallow public relations exercise and part-time jobs in the shadow economy," the letter states.

While we can all agree that Uber -- let alone the Uber + UN Women partnership -- is far from perfect, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture: The digital economy does have the power to democratize employment opportunities for women. But, to date, 200-million fewer women than men in developing countries have access to Internet-based economies.

Two hundred million.

If Uber can provide merely one-million opportunities for women to turn a digital platform into flexible employment, then we are, at the very least, headed in the right direction.

And then there's the other 199-million women.

The fact is, we don't have the luxury of excluding big players like Uber, not when extreme poverty continues to disproportionally affect women in the developing world. Looking just at Kenya -- whose first female Uber driver was featured in the Uber + UN Women promotional video -- the minimum wage is less than $2 per day, and women are half as likely as men to hold wage-earning jobs. Put another way, if a Kenyan woman earns the minimum wage, it would take nearly four months for her to save up for driving lessons (a requirement for a license) and two and a half months to afford a smartphone. Not to mention the cost of a car and the monthly costs associated with a phone plan, car maintenance, gas and insurance.

Finally, let's not forget that 40 per cent of Kenyan births go unregistered, particularly babies born in remote/rural areas.

Particularly babies who are girls.

If a Kenyan girl is not registered at birth, she will not have the necessary paperwork to go to school, let alone to obtain a driver's license when she is 18. She will not have the chance to be an Uber driver.

I applaud Uber taking a stand for gender equality, and it is important to also recognize the human rights work that is still to be done if we truly wish to put women in the driver's seat. When corporations partner with grassroots women's organizations -- the women on the ground who ensure that baby girls are registered, that children are educated and that women have access to higher-paying jobs -- the possibilities are endless.

Creating one-million opportunities for female Uber drivers will not, alone, result in gender equality. But it is an example of how corporate partners can use both their influence and innovation within the digital economy to benefit women. Instead of discouraging partnerships, we should actively foster collaborations that provide women with opportunities on a digital scale -- both at the multilateral level and at the grassroots.

When the rubber hits the road, we have miles yet to go. But the first step is to start driving.

Originally published on The Hill's Congress Blog


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