Shelley Uvanile-Hesch is a woman on a mission. From the cab of her Western Star 5700XE she works tirelessly to promote women in trucking.
Uvanile-Hesch is CEO of the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada (WTFC), an organization she founded three years ago to empower women in the industry as well as expand opportunities for them through education, training and mentoring. The organization has more than 300 members in a mentor group including drivers and office staff as well as police and government transport department staff. Almost a quarter are men, which Uvanile-Hesch points out with pride.
“It’s a very rounded group. Everybody helps everybody, regardless of what company they work for,” she says. “We have quite a few guys – they are so awesome, they would do anything for any of the ladies.”
But there’s still a big gender gap in the trucking business. Uvanile-Hesch focuses on the big issues like unequal pay and women being passed over for promotion as well as the more practical day-to-day challenges like personal safety and access to washroom facilities.
She is frustrated by the inequity. Women are more patient and therefore safer behind the wheel, she says. Employing more women is not only good for them, but is also an obvious step to addressing the driver shortage.
The challenge is getting through to the old-school thinkers, as well as making senior managers realize that empowering women, employing women is a solution, not a problem. “I’m a truck driver so I’m not used to dealing with higher level executives,” she says. “They always seem to put a value on everything. It’s got a price tag. But people are people. One person is not more valuable than the next. Everybody contributes something. We have a slogan, it’s, ‘In the office, under the hood, or behind the wheel, we’re all pieces of the puzzle’.”
Addressing the issues is a huge task, and one that Uvanile-Hesch tackles daily. With a Facebook following of more than 12,000, her routine – after driving the night shift in the truck – is to spend a couple hours posting inspiring messages and news before getting some sleep. In the afternoon she’s back on again, checking email and following up on the lively, and polite, conversations sparked by her posts.
“I’m truly 24/7, just like the trucking industry,” she says. “It’s my baby.”
Beyond the daily feeds, Uvanile-Hesch works at spreading the word beyond the trucking industry. “I’m an outside-of-the-box thinker,” she asserts. “I attend women’s functions that are non-trucking related, because I believe that women empowering each other, regardless of the industry you are in, makes us stronger as a whole.”
She’s getting lots of support for her efforts. Besides the growing social media following and burgeoning membership in the federation, she has the support of corporations like Western Star, which sponsored a WTFC wrap over her Sharp Transportations Systems truck. Ontario-based The Thompson Band recently recorded a music video called “Behind the Wheel” that was written for and dedicated to the WTFC.
Many WTFC members were involved in the video recording, Uvanile-Hesch recounts, spending a weekend working on it in June. It was an intense and wonderful experience she says. “We have a lot of women who want to build each other up. They want to share. They want to help women grow.”
Afterwards, she says the three most common words used to describe the event were “exciting, powerful and sisterhood”, reflecting the WTFC’s objectives of building community and solidarity.
What these women don’t want is to be singled out, however. Uvanile-Hesch believes it’s important for them to be treated like any other driver, even though they may have to do things a little differently. A woman may not load a flatbed exactly the way a man would because she’s shorter and may have less upper body strength, but in the end does that matter? “We do the job just as well, if not better, than our male counterparts,” she says. “So accept the truth of who we are.”
Ultimately men and women want the same things – safe parking, facilities, being healthy on the road, sufficient home time and the ability to do their job for equal pay. When women ask for bathrooms, or private showers, or small accommodations to their trucks. They’re not asking to be “treated like princesses up on a pedestal”, Uvanile-Hesch says. They just want to do their jobs.
She has no doubt she’s making progress, but there is definitely room for improvement. She’d like to see trucking companies bring back the camaraderie, the social and charity events, support the rodeos, and make them inviting and inclusive for all truck drivers. “The trucking industry needs to get back to the basics,” she says.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This profile was written before Uvanile-Hesch’s husband and co-driver, Chris Hesch, was killed in a workplace accident. While she has yet to decide if she will return to life behind the wheel, she stresses that the work with the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada will continue.
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