Do ladies-only taxis and trains empower women—or set them back?


On July 1st of this year, a Florida woman went to a bar for a friend’s birthday celebration. After a couple of drinks, she called Lyft—a ride-sharing service similar to Uber—for a car to take her home. Her driver, a 49-year-old man, pulled up in a Dodge Grand Caravan, just like the app said he would. All in all, it was a pretty standard Friday night. That is, until it wasn’t.

According to police reports, the driver didn’t take the woman home. Instead, he allegedly took her to a rundown single story house, forced her inside, and raped her. In a moment of bravery, the unnamed woman secretly called 911, and since she couldn’t speak freely, left the line open hoping police could find her. But with no address, they were unsuccessful. Eventually her captor let her go, at which point she called 911 again. After an investigation into the incident, the Lyft driver was arrested for sexual battery, false imprisonment, and kidnapping. Orlando police fear he might have attacked other victims who have yet to come forward.

Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon. It’s one of many reports of women being sexually assaulted by a Lyft or Uber driver since ride-sharing apps became popular. According to internal documents, Uber received five claims of rape and 170 claims of sexual assault between December 2012 and August 2015. An entire website called tracks arrests related to sexual assaults inside ride-sharing services. In response, a growing number of female-only ride-sharing services have sprung up as safer alternatives to the popular services, founded on the theory that if you get rid of men, you’ll eliminate the danger altogether. There’s See Jane Go in California, She Rides in New York, and SafeHer—which promises to give women “the freedom to travel without pause”—now available nationwide.

But pan out, and the rise of gendered services meant to protect women from men aren’t limited to ride shares. Governments and entrepreneurs around the world have begun to design an array of segregated safe spaces for ladies, too—from female-only train cars to gyms to apartment buildings. But while the short-term safety benefits of these spaces are obvious, they also raise larger questions: Do women-only spaces empower women by giving them a safe place of their own, or do they merely reinforce notions that women are the weaker sex with a reason to be afraid of men? Is separating women from men really the answer? In the long run, do these services help us or hurt us?

The unsettling rise of women-only spaces

In March of this year, Germany announced the launch of female-only train cars after a string of sexual assaults ravaged Cologne—the latest in a growing list of countries to do so. In 2014, Thailand announced the introduction of female-only sleeper cars on overnight trains after a 13-year-old girl was raped and murdered on an overnight train the previous year. In Japan, major cities like Tokyo and Osaka also offer female-only carriages in an effort to limit groping, sexual harassment, and assault. The carriages are painted pink, and any man who tries to enter them will be ushered away by guards.

Australia, in an effort to cut down on sexual assault, is toying with a similar idea—one transport union proposed a trial run of pink, women-only “Safe Carriages” on Sydney trains that run after 8 PM. Lawmakers in the U.K., too, have suggested female-only sections on public transportation to help reduce harassment. And Mexico has furthered the pink-ification of public transportation not only with female only-trains but also with “pink taxis” driven by women, for women. Each car includes an alarm button—a response to mounting complaints about sexual harassment from male taxi drivers. It also comes with a makeup kit.

In countries such as Germany, Switzerland and China, women have been given their own parking spaces to help keep them safe. They spots are typically situated in well lit areas close to entrances and exits in an effort to cut down on unwanted attacks from men in dark corners. Ironically, some critics have argued these spaces represent some sort of reverse sexism because they give women preferential parking over men. Sure, guys. Sure.

In the United States, we’ve seen the proliferation of women-only gyms, created as a result of women feeling judged—or worse, harassed—while working out in front of men. In just three years, The Everyday Sexism project collected 984 testimonies from women writing about their experiences of sexism, harassment and assault at the gym. Some women won’t even work out outside for this reason. And in Japan, architects have created women-only apartment complexes, designed so that “residents don’t have to worry about the eyes of men,” according to the builders. After all, the male gaze is ever-present.

While these women-only spaces might seem like a practical and empathic approach to keeping women safe, it’s possible that segregation could lead to more pernicious problems down the road. After all, women and men (and every gender in between) will always have to coexist—is separating by gender sustainable? Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Lawrence University and bona fide expert on sexism, is skeptical of their effectiveness.

“Women face different kinds of risks, but one thing we need to point out is that protection has often been used to repress people,” Glick told me. In previous centuries, women weren’t allowed to go out without a chaperone, under the guise of needing protection. In modern times, women in countries like Saudi Arabia still live under protective rules where they can’t drive a car alone, and must travel with a male guardian in public. When you take away a woman’s agency, you take away her freedom.

This phenomenon is what Glick calls “the protection racket,” in which men both create the problem and then offer themselves up as solutions. In the case of trains and taxis, male legislators have decided that it’s not safe for women to travel alone. Why? Because men might attack them.

“We’re playing into a narrative that men are a threat to women, so then when women need protection, who do they turn to? Men,” Glick explained. This leads to another problem: The more women think men have hostile attitudes, the more they endorse what is referred to as “benevolent sexism.” For the uninitiated, benevolent sexism is a theory in which seemingly positive assumptions about gender—such as the belief that women are delicate, fragile, and need to be protected—are actually quite insidious. They reinforce the idea that women are less capable than men.

Glick is an expert in benevolent sexism—he’s credited with coming up with the theory along with Susan Fiske, an expert in psychology and professor at Princeton University. Turns out, countries with lower levels of gender equality also exhibit higher levels of benevolent sexism, and, as Glick told me, endorsement of it comes with a host of repercussions including gender pay gaps; restrictions on women’s personal, political, and social freedoms; and violence against them.

Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College who specializes in women’s issues, echoed Glick’s thoughts. “We want to cherish and protect women, and these special spaces will do that,” Chrisler explained to me. “But benevolent sexism is still sexism … When women are exposed to benevolent sexism it interferes with their cognition and how they see themselves.”

As Chrisler points out, say you’ve never feared riding the train before—with the rise of women-only train cars, you might develop a fear about it because your perception of trains has turned negative. Instilling a sense of constant fear can change how women see themselves and how they behave.

Solutions—or Band-Aids?

This reality does not discount the very real danger women face every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control, women in the U.S. are sexually assaulted and raped at much higher rates than men (18.3% versus 1.4%, respectively). It’s obviously a problem that needs addressing, but the question is how we should address it. According to experts I spoke with, segregation is more of a Band-Aid than a solution.

“It’s a lot easier to say we’re gonna designate parking spaces or train cars rather than tell men not to assault or harass women,” Chrisler said, adding, “It’s men’s behavior that needs to change.”

“My position is we should think about how these narratives are used,” Glick said. “Is there another way we can increase safety by promoting less violence, less assault, and punishing [assault] more severely?” And here in the U.S., he thinks we still have a ways to go. “There are other societies where gender narratives are more progressive and women are safer,” he said. “The data tends to show that women are safer the more egalitarian the society is.”

That’s not to say female-only spaces are wholly unnecessary or damaging. It’s important to note that there are no easy black-and-white answers to ending violence against women. In certain contexts and countries—like Saudi Arabia, for example—gendered spaces might allow women to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do and grant them agency they wouldn’t otherwise have. In this case, segregation can be empowering. For example, women in that country can’t swim in a bathing suit in the presence of men, so the introduction of female-only pools allows women to swim and have fun in a way they couldn’t before.

“If these spaces allow women to go where convention doesn’t want them, then it can be a good thing,” said Chrisler. Of course, the longer-term solution would be societal reform to ensure that women are not beholden to such restrictive rules.

For other experts, the pros and cons to female-only spaces come down to choice. “It’s whether women have the choice of going to and hiding in a dedicated space, or whether they are obligated to do that,” says Yasmine Ergas, the director of the specialization on gender and public policy at Columbia University in New York. But even if women-only spaces are a choice and not a mandate, as they are in most Western countries, Ergas still has mixed feelings about them. “Apart from anything else, it reinforces a very binary view of gender. Again, as I say, I’m not against [the notion] that women can have their own spaces—but [only] in certain contexts, where it makes sense.”

These separate spaces may also cause unforeseen problems for the women who choose not to use them, Ergas said. “What happens if you have a system in which there are women-only train cars, and then you have women who choose not to ride in those train cars? Are they signaling that they want to be attacked, or ogled, or that they are somehow fair game?”

As with many situations in life, women may be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

So the bigger question becomes: How do we transform our world culture to one in which women are not constantly harassed by men? “The real change has to come in how we socialize men and how we punish sexual assault,” said Glick. As things currently stand, we’re a long way from a feminist Utopia. In the meantime, slapping some pink paint on the problem is unlikely to solve it—but at the very least, it could help save some lives.