Bridging the Gender Gap in Trucking

Like many baby boomer women, our families and society in general expected us to settle into traditional professions. We were encouraged to become teachers, nurses, secretaries or mothers. Period! Business was considered the domain of men and any type of blue collar job was reserved for the men folk. So, like most women at that time, I acquiesced with the trend and became a teacher. I soon discovered that I had a real gift and a passion for education but this traditional environment left me yearning for adventure and original challenges. I was not at all thrilled about working in such a restrictive system that rewarded conformity and rule keepers. So I went to the other extreme. I became the co-founder of a trucking company, got my Class AZ licence and took a leadership role in establishing a truck driver and heavy equipment training school.

As a result of this complete career shift, today I’m often seen as the poster child for women taking a non-traditional role in the workplace. This makes me a target for interviews and speaking engagements where I get to explain my journey into the perceived closed world of men and trucking. Recently, I was asked by a local organization to share my story at a forum for International Women’s Day. My presentation was focused on how I became an accidental entrepreneur in a very non-traditional workplace and what inspired me to make a change in my career path.

From the response of the crowd, I could tell that my story was an inspiration to both men and women. But the best part of the event is what happened at the end of the evening when a woman came to see me and asked if I remembered her. Of course… how could I forget Donna? In 1999, she was part of a very small percentage of women who were prepared to become truck drivers. She was at a turning point in her life that left her single and with children who were now independent. She was attracted to this new career for the same reasons that men choose to be truck drivers: independence, a good wage, a chance to see North America and a dynamic industry with chances for advancement. She was motivated to make a strong future for herself and we were all inspired by her conviction to succeed.

Yet according to Trucking HR Canada, only about 3% of women are truck drivers with an overall total of 48% in freight transportation. This is well below the Canadian average. It is clear that Donna was a trail blazer and beat the odds. She started working long haul throughout North America, became a recruiter, a driver manager, a safety and compliance officer, an operations manager and finally a safety manager. Her advancement was possible due to her hard work, competence and education. Faced with these formidable skills and her experience, she found an industry that was prepared to give her new challenges. She found advancement and a career. Not just a job.

So why are women still so under-represented in the trucking industry? We certainly know that the industry was always more suited to men because it required physical strength and a good woman at home who could take care of the family. Things have and are continuing to change to make this career a real option for women. Carriers are structuring routes to make it easier for drivers to be home every week. Freight is often in a closed van making it unnecessary to tarp heavy loads and technology to communicate with the family is improving. Even truck stops now have improved facilities that are clean, welcoming and accessible to both men and women. In fact I would venture to say that these are unisex improvements and they have improved the working conditions for all truck drivers. But the most important factor for increasing women’s participation in trucking is simply the fact that carriers realize that it makes good economic sense. All of a sudden they have access to 50% more people than before. And women bring a skill set that enhances their workforce. Many fleets appreciate women’s attention to detail, communication and organizational skills as well as a conscientious approach to dealing with customers.

We have also seen improvements in the number of women at our truck driver training school. Where Donna was among a 3-5% of women in 1999, today we estimate that women make up about 15% of our student population. This rise in statistics can be attributed to many social, economic and cultural changes. Awareness campaigns create an opening and then women begin to realize that it’s possible to consider trucking as a viable career. The school’s student population and staff benefit from the equalizing presence of women during training. All of a sudden, driving a truck is not just about shifting gears but also about all the other skills that are required to become a professional.

This now brings me to the 2016 worldwide campaign theme for International Women’s Day – Pledge for Parity. The United Nations World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. That’s 79 years. But after considering many more current global factors, the date has been moved to 2133. That’s 117 years. I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t see this in our lifetime. The progress for parity is obviously more prevalent in the western world yet in trucking it falls very short of equal representation. But I believe the climate is now ripe to encourage the trucking industry to inch closer to gender parity. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 100 years to get there.

Louise Philbin
Co-founder and Education Director
5th Wheel Training Institute
Haileybury, Ontario