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As shortage persists, women truck drivers combat industry sexism

Oct 18, 2021 | Equity, Featured six, Features | 0 comments

//Real Women in Trucking group poses for a photo. Photo by Robert John Kley Photography.

Picture an office. What do you see? Most Americans will think of a shared cubicle, a private room with a name placard at the door or even a work-from-home nook in a private residence. But, for professionals like Jess Graham and Angelique Temple, their office is a commercial vehicle weighing more than 26,000 pounds, designed to traverse the continental U.S.

Long-haul truck driving is a male-dominated field, and though it’s a challenging role for anyone to take on, women in the industry face more systemic challenges while doing the same work as their male counterparts. The issues are deep-rooted in trucking, with some arguing it’s even seeped into the advocacy work aimed to support female drivers.

Women in Trucking is a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 that works to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry.

“Personal safety is a huge concern for female drivers, and whether that means the maintenance of the equipment so that they’re not stuck on the side of the road, or it’s where they’re loading or unloading, maybe a loading dock that might be and in not a good part of town,” said Ellen Voie, who founded WIT 14 years ago. Currently, the organization has around 5,500 members in 11 countries. While everyone in the industry faces the same challenges, Voie said women have more to think about than other drivers.

However, not everyone has felt supported by the organization.

“[WIT doesn’t] make money from individual members; they make money from corporations. They’re not drivers…They were not diverse, and they were not representing truck drivers. So we started our own organization,” said Desiree Wood, President of Real Women in Trucking. The organization was formed in 2010 as a protest group by women truck drivers seeking improved conditions which they say are not being effectively addressed by the industry and even other organizations, including Women in Trucking.

Wood became a truck driver in 2007 and later joined Women in Trucking, where she sought to speak out against the sexual misconduct that women drivers faced, including increased risk of being raped during training. She said ultimately the organization was looking to silence her after she began to make noise.

At its heart, the schism comes from the fact that truck driving is a very physically demanding job, with truckers working extreme hours while navigating road and travel conditions that are not always safe. Add to that the extra challenges that women truckers must navigate, mired with the usual social challenges that touch on every part of American society, it’s then not surprising there’s disagreement over where problems exist and how to tackle them.

Truck drivers are a huge part of the U.S. economy, and they often go unnoticed and unrecognized, moving almost everything you can think of: groceries, construction materials, farming goods—a quick glance around a typical home reveals items sitting on a shelf or pantry that were likely on a commercial truck at some point.

Graham has been a truck driver for nine-and-a-half years, previously in all 48 lower states as a company driver. She is now an independent operator and picks where she drives, playfully noting, “I try and stay where I can wear my flip-flops all year round.”

Graham first entered the industry to get away from her daughter’s father, who was abusive. As she looked for jobs, she found most transportation positions required a commercial driver’s license, known colloquially as a CDL. So she went for it.

“After my training, I went back and I picked up my daughter, and we hit the road, homeschooled her in the truck,” Graham recalled.

Even though wages have decreased in recent years, Graham said trucking is one industry that, in a short time, can help people change their stations in life and lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty to obtain success, guaranteeing stability and a skill set that is sought after.

She argued that nobody gets into trucking because it’s their first goal or their dream and that most truck drivers enter the industry out of necessity. While she noted the allure of the open road, she said it’s a different picture living it, experiencing the physical labor and drastic lifestyle shift.

Temple happens to be the exception to Graham’s claim: She wanted to be a truck driver since she was 12. She went to school for trucking, got her CDL and immediately hit the road, specializing in the transport of hazardous materials.

After more than 20 years in the business, Temple recently became an independent owner and operator of her truck as well. As a mother of six, she said that the independence and flexibility of the role have been invaluable.

“Being able to set my schedule, to do what I need to do, to fit in whatever I need to do for my life, my children and just know that the hustle still has continued—you can fit things into your life to do what you have to do,” Temple said.

In general, both women spoke favorably of their careers, but Graham and Temple have both dealt with sexism from their male coworkers, especially when they first started. Temple says she was just one of two women working for her initial company. The problem is even more challenging to tackle when discussing some of the long-running structural issues in trucking.

One major problem is that the industry as a whole is experiencing a years-long shortage of drivers, first documented in 2005 when the trade was down by about 20,000 drivers. 

A 2019 report by the American Trucking Associations notes that the industry was short roughly 60,000 drivers in 2018, a near 20% increase compared to 2017, stating if current trends hold, the shortage could swell to more than 160,000 by 2028. 

As it stands, the trucking industry will need to hire roughly 1.1 million drivers over the next decade to bridge the gap. Retiring drivers is the largest factor, with replacement accounting for more than half of new driver hires. The second biggest factor in the shortage will be industry growth, which accounts for 28% of new driver hires.

This has shifted the industry, bringing a “ready-or-not” push for the trade to usher in a wider variety of prospective drivers, including more women.

Graham describes this as a symptom of a much larger issue: the gaps in the industry’s training standards. She argues that trucking does not have the framework in place to ensure that incoming folks with minimal skills are correctly prepared when put into a position of power, sometimes as early as six months into a job. Trainers and trainees end up sharing intimate living quarters for long stretches of time, sometimes even the same bed.

“That’s where you see a lot of the issues with the trainers and the students—the trainers were not trained correctly; they weren’t prepared for what it takes to be a leader, and they don’t know how to function, so they abuse that power,” Graham said. “And, then in the form of male and female student-teacher relations, it ends up as sexual assault.” 

As more women enter the occupation and become aware of these issues, many look to advocacy organizations for community, resources and support.

Temple is on the image team for Women in Trucking and said it has benefited her personally and professionally in the way of that support and community.

//Members of the Women in Trucking group pose for a photo. Photo provided by Ellen Voie.

“It has done, personally, so many things for me, getting with a whole group of women that immediately became my sisters,” Temple said. “It’s like a whole separate family…Women in Trucking is like a family that never dies.”

She said that being part of WIT also provides a platform to women in the industry, “You actually feel like this is a part of your career,” she said. As a mother and truck driver, Temple added that she enjoys showing new drivers that they can also be successful in the industry and providing representation that might otherwise be hard to find.

In addition to providing resources for drivers, Voie said one of the things she is most proud of is the WIT board of directors—featuring high-level executives in large companies like Amazon, Walmart, Michelin, FedEx and more—prioritizing diversity in the trucking industry. 

Recently, the organization launched its WIT Index, which tracks what percentage of industry professionals (drivers, technicians, managers, etc.) are women. Their 2019 survey revealed that women now make up more than 10% of over-the-road truck drivers, which is an increase of almost 30% from the 7.89% they observed in their 2018 survey. 

Graham, a current member of Real Women in Trucking, initially looked into joining Women in Trucking. She said one of the image team members “basically treated me like she was better than me and had no use for me” when she had questions, mirroring the experience of RWIT President Desiree Wood. 

After she first began driving, Wood was interviewed by Dan Rather, where she spoke out about rape and sexual assault in trucking and the issues female drivers face. She said it caused “quite the stir” at Covenant Transport where she was employed at the time, and the harassment persisted when Wood continued speaking out online.

In 2010, she said her WIT membership was revoked, with a reference that Wood “didn’t support the WIT mission.” She later founded Real Women in Trucking, which Wood said is more representative of the women drivers and an industry watchdog, so to speak.

The RWIT website hosts a number of web pages questioning the work that WIT does, including testimony from Jan Shelly, who also attempted to participate with WIT before moving to RWIT, “Turns out, Ms. Voie is actually someone who works much more closely and happily with the employers in the large trucking firms,” Shelly said.

Wood and RWIT members provided testimony to help unseal court documents from a sexual harassment case involving close to 300 women truck drivers in Jane Doe v CRST Expedited, Inc. The case ended in a landmark $5 million settlement, though Wood said not much has been written about it because “the trucking media is all in [Voie’s] back pocket. She was an expert witness for the company—against the woman and for the perpetrators. So that’s why we exist because what is happening in this industry is a lot of coverups.”

Wood plainly added that WIT doesn’t address the issues that women in the industry face, that the people behind WIT are largely not truck drivers themselves and do not represent the people they are meant to serve.

It’s a longstanding conflict between the two organizations. Voie has responded to the claims that WIT doesn’t acknowledge sexual assault in the industry in the past, telling Jezebel WIT is aware of the lawsuits and that they are proactive in helping female drivers understand the risks with resources on their website.

“No trucking company wants its drivers to suffer any harassment,” Voie said. “It’s an unfortunate consequence of a situation where two unrelated individuals are in the cab of a truck for days or weeks at a time.”

Voie noted advancing technology and said if trucking adapts to make the field safer in general and less physically demanding, it will make the industry more accessible as a whole, not just for women but for all people who may want to enter the industry, nodding to their new LGBTQ+ task force.

Wood said sexual assaults are a side effect of over recruiting, with trainers coerced into teaching whether or not they are actually the best for the role. She said part of the solution is holding companies accountable for their turnover rate.

Graham plainly posed the solution, “Just give them the tools they need to do it,” arguing that far and wide, the industry just isn’t taking care of the people it so desperately needs to fill these roles. “When you give someone the tools to be successful, they’re going to work above and beyond what you expect of them…There’s no shortage of people attempting; there’s a shortage of people that will stay after being treated as awful as you can treat them.”

 

 

 

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