Is the sharing economy safe for women?
As the sharing economy grows, we must increase our awareness of how different populations interact with this burgeoning economy. Women, taken as a whole, are likely to use and experience sharing services differently than men, given the unique economic and safety issues they face. For many women, the risks are much different than they are for men. As the novelist men will say their worst nightmare is that "women will laugh at them," while women are "afraid of being killed." Margaret Atwood once wrote, men will say their worst nightmare is that "women will laugh at them," while women are "afraid of being killed."
So what does that mean for women’s participation in an economic model which asks us to share everything from our kitchen appliances to our cars to our spare bedrooms? What steps can sharing economy services take to address the risks that women take using the services?
By looking at a few businesses and services within the sharing economy, we can draw some worthwhile, if not universal, lessons about how women might engage in this brave new world of sharing.
Much ink has already been spilled on the topic of safety within the CouchSurfing community. And not for nothing; there are few scenarios that require more trust than sleeping in the living room of a stranger you just met online.
Couchsurfing’s mission is to “create Inspiring Experiences,” and its goals are lofty. It attempts to take couchsurfing (lowercase) out of the realm of broke slackers and transform it into an approach to lodging embraced by a global network of curious, like-minded travelers of all ages..
Since launching in 2003, some 4.5 million users from around the globe have created profiles on the CouchSurfing website. According to the site, about 47 percent of those users are women.
Despite the near gender parity among its users, CouchSurfing has been criticized for putting too much emphasis on personal safety tips and not taking enough responsibility as a company to ensure the safety of its users (by, for instance, requiring rather than recommending that users verify their identities). In a 2009 article for Bitch magazine, journalist Mandy Van Deven asks bluntly, “Is CouchSurfing.org Safe for Women?”
Unreported incidents of gender-based misconduct abound; one hears about them through other members in the CS Groups, but not from CS leadership (CS did not announce the Leeds case until after it was all over the media) or through the site's institutionalized safety measures.
It's hard to take these safety measures seriously when some of the men who are accused of attempted or completed sexual assault are actually well-known in CS community and have hundreds of positive references and when they require a woman to go public with information that is humiliating and traumatizing.
The “Leeds case” Van Deven refers to above concerns a female CouchSurfer who in 2009 was allegedly raped multiple times by her male CouchSurfing host. Van Deven acknowledges that the incident “isn't your typical CouchSurfing experience.” As CouchSurfing spokesperson Heather O’Brien says, “If you were to consider a city of 4.5 million people, I think we have an incredibly low crime rate for a community of our size. But still, whenever strangers meet, there's that element of the unknown.”
Of course, CouchSurfing isn’t a city, but rather a self-selected network of individuals. And while it’s true that there’s always an “element of the unknown” when strangers meet, that doesn’t free the company of responsibility to its users.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that although women make up nearly half of the CouchSurfing community, they may approach CouchSurfing experiences more cautiously than their male counterparts.