TORONTO, Ont. - After completing a day behind the wheel, Denise Cote performs the same ritual, night after night."What I do is I drive to the fuel pump, go to the bathroom, then come back. I get in my...
A MINORITY: Denise Cote is one of only 7,000 women truckers on our roads.
TORONTO, Ont. – After completing a day behind the wheel, Denise Cote performs the same ritual, night after night.
“What I do is I drive to the fuel pump, go to the bathroom, then come back. I get in my truck and shut the drapes,” she says. “Nobody knows I’m there.”
Cote isn’t alone in performing this ritual: Many female truck drivers – especially those who drive solo – similarly barricade themselves when overnighting at a truck stop, far from home or friends.
For women drivers, the demanding job of a trucker can be even more challenging, simply because of their sex. The lines that once defined the boundaries between traditional women’s and men’s work have quickly dissolved in this post-sexual-revolution era. And in a time of growing driver shortages, more employers within the trucking industry are trying to find ways to attract women drivers.
According to Statistics Canada’s Labor Force Survey, the country’s 14.3 million-strong workforce in 1998 split almost down the middle of the sexual divide: 54.5 per cent male; 45.5 per cent female. Of course, the actual break down from profession to profession varies, but trucking is nonetheless exceptional: the survey showed that 97.2 per cent of Canada’s 231,000 truck drivers were male and only 2.8 per cent, or a little under 7,000, were female.
The Winter, 1999 issue of Statistics Canada’s journal Perspectives underlines the point: “despite the inroads made by women into many non-traditional occupations and the increasing demand for trucking services, very few women drive transport trucks. On the other hand, ‘truck driver’ was the Number-one occupation for men in 1996.”
Cote, who’s been driving over-the-road for 30 years, and with MacKinnon Transport for the last four, puts her secret to success plainly. “The way I look at it, it’s a mans world. And I’m really happy that they make room for me, but I treat the guys like the way that I want to be treated,” she says.
Operating in such a unique sub-culture puts special stress on a person, yet studies of the effects on female truckers are hard to find. The American Society of Safety Engineers has published the results of research on the subject in the September issue of its Professional Safety magazine.
In the article, “Stress Factors Experienced by Female Commercial Drivers in the Transportation Industry,” researchers Tracey M Bernard, Linda H. Bouck and Wendy S. Young say that “evidence…suggests that low self-esteem, poor peer relationships, lack of social support from co-workers and/or supervisors are common sources of occupational stress. For example, females employed in male-dominated professions often perceive themselves as ‘outsiders.'”
Granted, they weren’t working from a huge sample. Their report was based on the 27 returned questionnaires distributed to 77 female long-haul drivers in the spring of 1999 – all of whom worked for the same, unidentified company in Western Kentucky.
Bernard, Bouck and Young found that 92 per cent of the women spent more than three weeks away from home each month, and found that the respondents in general considered truck stops stressful. The drivers were most concerned about delivering their load on time and, “when comparing themselves to male drivers,” were “neutral/undecided as to whether they had to work hard to prove themselves on the job.”
In conclusion, the Professional Safety paper said that, overall, the women who responded to the questionnaire “were somewhat satisfied with their jobs, but generally indicated that they would not continue driving until their retirement and would not encourage other females to drive.”
Catherine Otto drives for Challenger Motor Freight and acknowledges “they say that once trucking is in your blood it’s there to stay, and they’re right.” She’s driven both open-board and dedicated runs, both solo and with her husband, since starting to drive big trucks about six years ago.
For her, the good and bad experiences “pretty much balance,” she says over the phone from Shreveport, La., where she’s just dropped off a load.
As for the attitudes of those she’s had dealings with over the highways, “I’d say I ran into indifference.” She recounts how, when she was new to the business and running solo, she would be met by looks of shock when dealing with client personnel.
As for her personal safety, she stands more than six feet tall. “I walk tall and I walk hard,” she says, her voice matter-of-fact and as level as a pool table. “I never got down and out grief,” she says, noting that, as a whole, the industry has “really gotten better in the last five years.”
American anthropologist Diane Ruth Phillips has studied the world of the female truck driver. In her 80-page report, Phillips says women are attracted to the occupation of truck driving for the same reason that men are – “the imagery and perception of independence and freedom is embraced by females as well as males” – and notes that “working conditions vary in physical demands and amount of time and distance from a home base. However, none of the physical dangers, discomforts or stresses precludes female participation.”
And changes to equipment have made driving big rigs easier.
As part of her research, Phillips traveled with “Sharon,” a solo driver who ranked stopping places from “safe” to “very dangerous” (The least safe stopping place for a woman? Roadside rest areas), and would even use a small portable toilet so she wouldn’t need to set foot outside her truck after dark.
Beyond the obvious fear of rape or mugging, Phillips’ research shows that female truckers fear for their cargo, since robbers may hone in on them believing women are softer targets.
“I had a few of what I’d rather call learning experiences out there, as far as being a single woman in a truck,” says Deb Astalos, who ran solo for seven years before leaving the road for the office, becoming a driver-relations person at Gerth Transport. She has traveled through all lower 48 states and 10 Canadian provinces.
“It’s not a good idea to let people know that (you’re driving solo) or trust anybody. Once they find out you’re alone in your truck, things can get a little strange. So I learned very quickly to say that my husband was sleeping in the bunk and make up all kinds of lies.
“It’s very male-oriented and I think it will always be. The only other women you usually saw out there were husband and wife teams. It’s a different lifestyle.”
Astalos, who “really respects drivers and what they do,” became a driver-relations person because she thought that maybe that way she could improve truckers’ working conditions.
She takes new women truckers under her wing. “When you’re out there in the midst of nobody you know -and I mean there is crazy stuff all the time – I just give them some safety pointers, like the idea that you don’t talk too much to ‘these’ people.
“It depends on where you’re driving in terms of attitudes. I’ve been threatened to be run off the road, told that I should be barefoot and pregnant and that whole spiel.”
She notes that, in Canada, attitudes towards women truckers are, in general, a lot better than they are in the U.S., and the roads and truck stops are a lot safer.
Cote, who now owns four trucks and will soon have a woman driving for her, likes to pass along some of the tricks she’s learned for dealing with the pressures of the male-dominated world of trucking. “The first thing is, treat the man like you want to be treated. Don’t get to close to them. Don’t hang around to the same places all the time, unless you feel like you have family there,” she says.
And be careful on the radio she says. “Don’t get on the CB: these women sometime, I feel so sick, they go on and on and on,” keeping up an endless stream of colorful and flirty language.
Cote, whose CB handle is “Funny Face”, admits the industry’s attitudes have changed a lot, in some ways for better, and in some ways for worse.
“It’s really hard to make it in the trucking industry, but that’s all I know how to do.” n