Only 2 percent of U.S. cabs are driven by women.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Wilda Pierre-Louis used to manage a fitness gym alongside her husband.

But after her divorce, the Haitian immigrant found herself looking for a new job to pay her bills, including a monthly mortgage.

A friend of a friend knew the owner of a limousine company and raised the idea of her working as a chauffeur. “When I first heard about the possibility to be a chauffer I was very scared of the city and the atmosphere,” she recalled.

But then financial pressures compelled her to give it a try.

Today Pierre-Louis, a college-educated woman in her 40s, is a rarity in New York City’s private-passenger industry. Among taxi drivers here–a sister trade to limousine companies–only 170 of the 46,000 drivers are women, according to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.

“If you see a woman at the license exam centers, she is probably accompanying her husband or translating for him,” said Gina Avish, president of a private limousine company in New York.

Only about 2 percent of all U.S. taxi drivers–about 225,000 in all–are female, according to a 2006 employment-oriented industry study by consultant Sandra Lowitt. In New York state the figure is even lower–about 1.1 percent–according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a London-based coalition of transit unions.

Yet women account for 60 percent of all taxi rides in New York City and men account for 99 percent of all taxi drivers, according to a 2007 report released by the New York-based Design Trust for Public Space.

Startups Around the Globe

The scarcity of U.S. female drivers persists amid an international flurry of startups in women-only cab companies.

One of the first was London’s Pink Ladies, a company formed in 2005 after a girl was murdered by someone posing as a taxi driver.

On the heels of that, two female entrepreneurs–both with daughters of their own–launched an eye-catching fleet of pink cabs driven by women for exclusively female passengers. In 2006 a Pink Ladies branch opened in Moscow and similar ventures have been making headlines in countries such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates and India.

The New York taxi industry depends on a work force that is almost 85 percent immigrant, with South Asians from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh predominating, according to a 2004 study of the driver population by Bruce Schaller, a taxi industry consultant based in Brooklyn.

Alfred LaGasse, executive director of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, a trade support group in New York, said this helps explain why so few women apply for the positions. “The culture of their country of origin and their understanding of women’s rights play an important role in seeking jobs,” he said.

“We are focusing on more pressing subjects than informing women about the job,” he added, citing the wildly fluctuating price of oil and gasoline as an example. “Because of security concerns and the solitude involved, driving a taxi is less attractive to women.”

However, Naomi Glaser, senior vice president of Valera Global Limousine, a new company that employs 200 drivers, four (2 percent) of whom are female, said the industry is “less sexist that it used to be and there is more understanding in the corporate end.”

Women Driven Out by Crime

Female taxi drivers were more numerous in the 1960s, but many left the industry in the following two decades when high crime rates made the job considerably more dangerous.

Today, there are programs to help women enter many traditionally male fields but none is aimed at informing women about taxi driving opportunities, according to LaGasse, who monitors trends in the New York taxi industry.

“My mother was afraid when I told her I wanted to be a cab driver,” said Pierre-Louis, who has been working as a limousine chauffer for two years and says she has never felt unsafe on the job.

Pierre-Louis said that male clients are polite and give more generous tips, and that she is financially stable and confident about her ability to keep up her mortgage payments.

The low numbers of female drivers worries Erin Armstrong, program manager at RightRides For Women’s Safety, a New York nonprofit that arranges free, safe late-night rides home to women. “There are a lot of taxi drivers’ attacks and sexual harassment of women,” she said. “There is a real need for safer transportation access.”

Safety, Cultural Constraints

Violations by drivers upon their passengers are common in yellow cabs, according to a 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and law institute in New York.

On top of safety considerations, cultural prohibitions against traveling alone with a male driver can also constrain women from using taxis.

Pierre-Louis explained that industry pressures also restrict entry. In New York City 46,000 drivers are licensed to operate yellow cabs but the city restricts the number of cabs that it authorizes through the sale of medallions–$500,000 each–to less than a quarter of that: 12,237. Manhattan’s yellow cabs are operated by private licensed companies and are the only ones legally permitted to pick up passengers hailing them a street.

“It’s a very competitive atmosphere and men are very protective. They don’t want to help much for fear women would take over,” she said.

In New York, full-time drivers of yellow cabs usually work six days a week, for 12-to-16-hour shifts and take home $400 to $500 a week in earnings. The majority have no health benefits, paid vacation or sick days, according to the Brennan Center for Justice report.

Female drivers face discrimination if they are married or have children, according to a 2007 report by the International Transport Workers Federation that found cab companies reluctant to hire such workers because of scheduling demands of the work.

Pierre-Louis, who has no children, said the long hours are tough on families. “You have to put a lot of hours if you want to make it. And if you have kids it’s a very hard job to do. You need to have a flexible schedule.”

Iulia Anghelescu is a freelance journalist in New York City

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