Summit focuses on “women with drive”

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TORONTO, ON – Barely 3% of Canada’s truck drivers and techs are women, but that is something the organizers of Trucking HR Canada’s second annual Women with Drive summit hope to change.

More than 180 industry representatives packed into a Mississauga, Ontario hotel on March 3, discussing ways to recruit, train and retain more women in a traditionally male-dominated field. “It isn’t very often in our industry that we have this many women together in one room,” said Angela Splinter, CEO of Trucking HR Canada. “Our goal is to keep that conversation going.”

There were plenty of conversations to be had, with panelists discussing barriers they had to overcome along their own career paths. Alison Theriault, now a driver with Clarke Road Transport, recalled an ad that she posted on Kijiji when looking for her first job as a trucker. With a newly minted licence in hand, complete with a university degree and military background, she thought she would be an ideal candidate. The screaming voice on one call suggested otherwise. “He just said, ‘How dare you. Who the hell do you think you are? I just assumed (you were) a man. We don’t put women in trucks here.'” Another recruiter suggested the option of marrying a man who could drive. “In his opinion, single, young women do not belong in trucks.”

Kelley Platt, now president of Western Star and Daimler’s Chief Diversity Officer, admitted to selling herself short. She was involved in reviewing candidates for different career paths, but never thought of putting forward her own name to lead the team responsible for school buses. The CEO had to call with that offer. “That told me we’ve got to look at different places, and we have to challenge (women) to look at different roles,” she told the crowd.

The reasons panelists first joined the industry varied. Andreea Crisan, COO and executive vice-president of Andy Transport, helped her father with the books as he expanded beyond a single truck. Angena Kalhar, KTL Transport’s president, recalled passing her dad tools in a household where gender was never presented as a barrier. Katie Erb, with Erb Transport’s inside sales team, grew up believing she could do anything her brother did. Katrina Theriault, who was struggling to make ends meet in a service job, realized more money could be made if she joined her wife as a team driver. (They did even better after moving to a fleet that did more than split the mileage rates in two.) Samantha Sharpe of Nova Truck Centres decided on a career path in the shop after she realized the limits of pay in her Early Childhood Education job. At first she struggled to pick up a sledge hammer. Now she finds the joy in gaining strength and understanding alike. “Like, yeah, I can get that tire on by myself.”

One common theme that emerged was the value of mentorships. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” Crisan said.

“I’ve worked very hard on surrounding myself with people I can learn from,” said Jacquie Meyers, president of Meyers Transport, referring to male and female mentors alike. “It’s changed my life.”

The help is hardly limited to formal programs. Sharpe referred to ways that she leans on a female co-worker in the shop. (“Sometimes you need to have a girl moment in a very male-dominated field.”) It isn’t the only place she has found support, either. The apprentice described her male shop foreman as the biggest supporter. When one customer demanded that repairs be completed by a man, he was directed to another business down the road.

Several speakers also stressed the value of creating workplaces which promote a work-life balance, particularly since women continue to be the primary caregivers in many families. Kalhar likened it to a safety briefing familiar to anyone who ever flew on an airplane. Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Then there’s the challenge of changing mindsets. “Most of what we’re doing is overcoming the perception that women are the inferior sex,” says Meyers.

Times are changing. Meyers Transport, once led by an executive team of middle-aged white men, is now guided by an ethnically diverse seven-member board with three women and four men – a structure which encourages new ideas and innovation.

“It’s a business imperative for us to make sure we have all the good ideas on the table,” said Platt, observing that women tend to approach issues with a different mindset than their male counterparts. Women are more likely to consider how results are achieved, uncovering those who sacrifice long-term strategies at the expense of individual quarterly results, she said. It’s one of the reason Daimler looks beyond internal teams if it lacks a pool of diverse candidates. But she offered one warning: Nothing will kill a commitment to workplace diversity any quicker than hiring someone who is not qualified.

The panel of drivers also suggested it may be time for more female faces in recruiting ads. “We need to be represented,” said Helen Thorpe of Seaboard Transport. “That’s the first thing people would see.” Trucking HR Canada and its national advisory committee behind Women with Drive is looking to make a difference there. It offered the sneak peek at a video showcasing women in a variety of industry jobs.

There are jobs to be had, too. Sharpe was clearly one of the most popular people in the room. She left with 15 business cards and several job offers, even though she’s happy staying where she is.

And those who have the jobs are anxious for another generation of women to follow their lead. Alison Theriault still loves it when she makes eye contact with little girls in family cars. “Their faces light up when they see, ‘Whoa, there’s a woman driving that truck!'” When they pump their arms up and down, she always answers the universal request with a short blast of the horn. Just like the ones she liked to hear when she was younger.

Leave it to keynote speaker Hazel McCallion, once the longest-serving mayor of the host city, to put it into perspective. “Time has come that we don’t have to be nurses and teachers,” she said. “There’s no job a woman can’t do. Even driving a garbage truck.”


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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