It takes a special mindset for women to succeed in trucking—one that allows them to see opportunities where others don’t, and one that allows them to deal with the harsh realities of working in a man’s world.
Backing a truck up to a loading dock is one of the basic, required skills of being a driver, but it’s something that men seem to believe is beyond the capability of women—or at least it’s something they often need to see performed with their own eyes.
“I used to have people come out and stand in the dock doors to watch me back up. And when I’d get out, I’d get on the running board and bow. I used to tell them, ‘the first show is free, honey; the next one is five bucks!” recalls Beverley Plummer of Barrie, Ontario.
Plummer began driving in the 1970s and only retired in 2009 with an accident-free, freight claim-free record after she got tired of paying the costs for the yearly (and since rescinded) Ontario-mandated licence retests for drivers over 65 years of age, but her story of having her skills questioned is something that drivers on the road today still experience.
Brenda Ellah, of Aylmer, Ontario drives for Trisec Logistics and she has heard plenty of questions about her ability to drive in reverse.
“In a lot of places I go, that’s the first question people will ask me: Can you back up? I told the guy last week, ‘Well, I can try.’ Another guy down in Texas asked me ‘Can you back this thing up?’ and I said, ‘No, I only go forward. So we’ll have to figure out how to load this trailer without me in the dock,’” she says, adding, “I don’t ever think they’d ask a guy that. It’s a girl thing.”
Being asked questions about basic skills is hardly the worst thing that can happen on a job. It’s not blatant discrimination or harassment. It’s not being put in a dangerous working environment. It is, however, just a small indication that women drivers have different experiences on the road than their male counterparts do.
Ellah’s and Plummer’s light-hearted and easy-going reactions to those queries are pretty typical of how a lot of women who occupy the driver’s seat deal with their jobs—they refuse to let things get to them and they tough it out, even when situations get dicey or when they encounter hostility.
“You have to be strong, otherwise you get walked all over out there.”
“The toughest thing about being a woman driver? I would say from when I started to where I am now, I have definitely grown a backbone. You have to be strong, otherwise you get walked all over out there,” says Jenn Duval, a Guelph, Ontario-based highway driver and a trainer for the Kriska Group of Companies.
“For the most part, most of the male truck drivers are always willing to help, always willing to give you a hand, but you have that certain percentage where they’ll just look at you with that, ‘you’re a woman, you shouldn’t be out here, you should be at home with the kids’ attitude.”
Duval, who describers herself as being “a laid back, joking kind of girl,” says women drivers have to learn how to stand their ground and not be intimidated by men, especially when the men are wrong about something but insist they’re not. She tells the story of a male driver who stole a parking spot she was backing into. When she confronted him about his actions, he was “very rude” and told her she shouldn’t be so slow. “He got very close, it was almost to the point where we were face-to-face, and I thought he was going to hit me at one point in time, but I just took it and walked away. I thought, ‘you know what, this is only a parking spot,’ and I felt good that I at least confronted him. That’s one of the things that always sticks out in my mind as one of the hardest times I’ve ever had with a male truck driver.”
While threats of physical violence aren’t part of the typical routine, women drivers often find themselves at the unwanted, receiving end of sexual propositions, including men exposing themselves or masturbating or knocking on their trucks asking if they want company. And just like being questioned about their ability to back a truck up, women drivers tend to make light of the situations. Plummer remembers one day when she saw another driver in his cab with the door open pleasuring himself.
“If that’s all you’ve got to play with, honey, I feel sorry for you.”
“He had a big grin on his face. He thought I was going to be into him. I told him, ‘If that’s all you’ve got to play with, honey, I feel sorry for you.’ And he couldn’t wait to get away from me. Afterward, I thought, ‘Jackass, why do we have to…?’ But it’s just stuff. If you dwell on it, that’s the big thing. That’s what makes it hard for a person that it happened to. If I dwelled on it, I’d just be gone.”
Not dwelling on it and not wanting to make a big deal of things is exactly the reaction that Ellah had when confronted with what in reality was a scary, potentially dangerous situation. She was in a truck stop in Nashville, Tennessee when a fellow driver from the next truck over, who happened to be naked at the time, offered her some pills, after noticing she had been limping a bit due to a lower back injury.
“I went and reported him to security because I had to sleep beside this guy all night. They did have armed guards in that truck stop, and they said they would keep an eye on my truck all night. They didn’t approach him, but they took his company name and his plate and said they were going to call his company the next day. That was all right. The chances of me ever seeing this guy again are pretty much next to nothing, so to avoid anything bad happening, I just wanted to report it quietly and get back to my truck and get to sleep. I felt fine after telling them. I knew they were going to look out for me after that.”
When recounting her story, Ellah notes one detail in passing that no male driver would ever be likely to include in any truck stop tale.
“Actually, when I pulled in there, they thought I was a lot lizard because they said they don’t see too many female truckers.”
Although none of the drivers are fearful for their safety, they do admit that as women, they tend to take precautions about where they go and how they present themselves.
A.L. is an owner/operator who drivers for a major, multi-national transportation and logistics company and formerly worked on-staff for that same company as a driver and a driver trainer. When A.L. participates in social media and trucking forums, she uses a pen name. (For this article, she wants to use her initials, as she doesn’t have permission to act as a spokesperson for the trucking company.) She bought her truck from the company, and didn’t change its paint job.
“I don’t like to draw attention to myself.”
“I left it that way purposefully, so that it doesn’t look like an owner/operator. Maybe that’s my way of staying incognito,” she says.
“I don’t like to draw attention to myself. So on the outside, I’ve got the air tabs on it, and I keep the truck clean, but I don’t have some of the gee-gaws that a lot of the guys have on their trucks. I don’t chrome it. I don’t put the wheel covers on. I just try to make it look as much like a company truck as I can. For me, I spend money making it run better and get better fuel economy—those are the things that allow me to spend my time at home.”
The changes she made include installing a boat seat and removing the passenger seat, which giver her extra room to store her bicycle, and adding an APU to cut down on idling.
Besides being circumspect about her truck’s markings, she is also aware of both her presentation and her surroundings. She avoids parking at the ends of rows and stays away from being too close to the front doors. By parking in the “back 40” where there are fewer people, she figures she can avoid trouble.
“I don’t wear any jacket that says which truck I’m on, nothing that says the company name. I don’t generally make a point of telling people where I’m from or where I’m going. I talk to be polite, but I don’t start up conversations with people I don’t know. I just keep to myself mostly, unless I find another [company] person, or another person I’ve met before. I’m careful where I walk and I watch what’s around me—the usual precautions.”
Along with not wearing company logos, A.L. makes other deliberate choices about her wardrobe—choices that won’t garner her any unwanted attention.
“I don’t wear jeans anymore because I find them too motion constricting. I do wear yoga pants, but I tend to wear longer jackets. I don’t wear tiny tank tops. I could, but I don’t. Not here, not on the road. I dress properly and professionally.”
While drivers of both sexes will often find themselves away from home for longer periods than they’d like, women are typically the primary caregivers to their children, and balancing driving schedules with the demands of parenting can be difficult. Duval’s children were young when she started her driving career, and she had to make some hard choices about their care. Her son was born in 1999, while she started at Kriska, which recruited her out of driving school, in 2006. At the time, she was separated from his father.
“It was my decision to let him stay with his dad while I went out on the highway and started getting my life together again,” says Duval. “My daughter went and lived with my sister for a couple of years too. She would have been 13 at the time. It was very hard.”
Despite the challenges, all of the drivers pride themselves on being professionals and being treated as such. In some ways, driving trucks is a wonderful equalizer for a lot of women (although Ellah says she had an employer that under-paid her compared to her male colleagues.)
“It’s the only job I ever worked at that I got the paid the same money as men. Whatever was the going rate behind the wheel, that’s what I got,” says Plummer. “I got the same routes [as the men] because I was a good runner. A lot of times they’d give me something to see if I could do it, and I always did it.”
One of her more frequent routes was a run between Toronto and New York City. “I think they gave me a lot of New York because I got in and out without hitting anything.”
Like Plummer, A.L. says there is no disadvantage to being a woman when it comes to pay. “The people at dispatch, all they have is a truck number and the number of hours you have to work with. That’s what I like about this business: there is no preferential treatment for being a man or a woman. They’re not able to choose to pay you less because you’re a woman.”
Beyond the pay issue, all of the women, in fact, said they’re treated well as drivers—sometimes they’re even treated better because of who they are.
“I get treated really well at the border when I cross.”
“There are lots of advantages. I get treated really well at the border when I cross. I get treated well at the scales,” says Ellah. “Probably 99% of the places I go, you get treated better as a female,” adding that she is often offered a cup of coffee or use of the washroom facilities at the highway scales.
Duval also believes women working in the industry are treated more than fairly.
“I think when a woman is driving a truck, she is put on a pedestal compared to a male truck driver. That’s how I feel. That’s why I always say in eight years, there’s not a day I wake up and don’t look forward to going to work, because I get made to feel good at work,” she says.
“All around, I find it a very rewarding career for a woman, because you’re looked at as being a little more special, I find. You’re given a lot of credit for being out there and being on the road and working with all these men all the time. I’ve never been ashamed to tell anybody that’s what I do for a living, because I’ve never had anybody say anything bad back to me. I’ve always been made to feel good about what I do and being a woman in the industry.”
Enticing women into the driver’s seat
When entries are reviewed in the Best Fleets to Drive For contest, one of factors considered is how companies treat women.
“We always ask about the percentage of women that are in the fleet. In conversation we talk about harassment programs. But what we’ve found is that there’s really been no change from the time we started six years ago to now in terms of the number of women in fleets,” says Jane Jazrawy, vice-president of product development for Markham, Ontario-based Carrier’s Edge, the online training company that runs the contest.
“We find that women are mostly in companies where it’s husband and wife teams.”
According to Jazrawy, in most fleets in North America, women account for 4-5% of the drivers. Companies awarded Best Fleet status typically have about 7%.
She says in an industry with a chronic and severe driver shortage, there is no real program designed to recruit women.
“If there is a driver shortage that everyone is concerned about, excluding half of the population by just not even addressing them is foolish,” she says adding “women won’t choose to be in the industry if they can’t see themselves in it. And the trucking industry has to decide whether or not they want to make that happen.”
Women in charge
As with their driving counterparts, women who hold executive roles in trucking companies are rare, but they are also very capable and happy with their jobs.
“There are a lot more female customers now, and female decision makers. But in the C-suite, I think we are still under-
represented, just as drivers and mechanics are under-represented,” says Jacquie Meyers, president of Belleville, Ontario-based Meyers Transportation Services.
“I guess the upside is there is still so much opportunity for women to get into the C-suite and into driving and mechanic positions. The industry as a whole is hungry for new talent, and yes, we would love to get more women coming into the industry.”
Vicki Stafford, vice-president of resource development at Cavalier Transportation Inc. in Bolton, Ontario, also sees a shortage of women executives, but says there doesn’t seem to be a glass ceiling.
“There are lots of women in the industry. Obviously it is still an old boys’ club at the ownership level, but I would say nothing has ever bothered me. You want the best person in the job. This has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, but I don’t think it is preventing anybody being involved, but women have to get involved. The door is open. We just have to step in.”
Both Meyer and Stafford have become unofficial spokespersons for women in trucking. As such they have spent time thinking about how to recruit more women.
“It’s up to us to make it exciting for women to come and work for us. When you’re interviewing kids coming out of university, you’re competing against a bunch of different industries, and it’s incumbent upon us to show them trucking is somewhere they want to be—that we’re innovative and changing. That there is room for growth and room for women in this industry. It is up to us to draw them in,” says Meyers.
Stafford says that once young women are exposed to the business, they can see a place for themselves, but getting that first exposure is hard.
“I don’t think women, in general, understand what the transportation industry offers. They think there are still a lot of stereotypes. I’ve hired lots of young people. I have three girls here right now that are attending university and working here part-time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up with careers in transportation, but they didn’t come where with knowledge of that. Once they get in, it opens their eyes that there are lots of opportunities here.