Welcome to Conversations with Nicole, a regular column in which Candor Expedite founder and CEO Nicole Glenn speaks with industry professionals about their experience in logistics – working with shippers and carriers; key challenges; and lessons learned along the way. Here Nicole speaks with Ellen Voie, founder and CEO of Women in Trucking.
Nicole: You have built an amazing organization that is a voice for thousands of female truck drivers. Tell us about your history – what made you start it, and some of the key milestones over the years.
Ellen: I was one of the lucky people whose mom told me I could do anything I wanted, and there were no “girl” careers. She encouraged me when I took shop class. I learned woodworking, welding, drafting and auto mechanics. This was in 1975, shortly after Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act was adopted to create a level playing field in education for girls as well as boys. Until then, girls studied home economics, and boys took shop class.
Shop class was so much fun, and my instructor insisted I was the best welder he’d ever had! I loved the auto mechanics lessons, and when I wanted to use the family car, I disconnected the distributor cap so my older brother couldn’t get it started! These were more valuable to me than cooking, baking or cleaning. In 1978 I was hired at a steel fabricating plant in central Wisconsin where I worked in the drafting department, designing material handling equipment, such as steel pallets, bins, and racking. It was fun, but not very exciting.
In 1979, my mom passed away, and I was ready to move on, but my bosses asked if I wanted to transfer into the traffic department instead of drafting. I didn’t have a clue what was involved in “traffic,” but they doubled my salary and sent me to school for “traffic and transportation management.” After completing the course, my boss left the company and I was promoted to the position of traffic manager.
We had three plants creating steel products as varied as material handling, fireplaces, and jacks. I was responsible for bringing the raw materials into the plants and for shipping the completed products out to our customers. We also had three trucks of our own, and I was in charge of hiring, firing and managing the three drivers. This occurred before deregulation and all freight rates were regulated by tariffs, so the carriers tried to sell the customer on service, or sometimes bribes. Yes, I was offered everything from dates with NBA players to illegal drugs. This was in the late ’70s. I was 20 years old.
I ended up marrying a professional driver, and we started our own trucking company. I also did freelance work as a transportation consultant while I ran our small carrier, raised two children and attended college to earn my bachelor’s and then master’s degree in communication. I was offered numerous writing opportunities in various magazines. My monthly columns were about family life in the trucking industry. I completed my Master’s Thesis on “The Complex Identities of Women Married to Professional Drivers.” I later published a book filled with some of my most popular articles called, “Marriage in the Long Run.”
After 20 years, my marriage ended, and my children were nearly grown. I was hired for the position of executive director of Trucker Buddy International. Then, I was recruited by Schneider National to lead their retention efforts. My job was to initiate corporate level programs designed to attract and retain non-traditional groups, such as women.
At the time, I was completing my pilot’s license, and I belonged to an organization for female pilots. It struck me that there wasn’t a similar group for women in the trucking industry; so, I started one. That was in 2007 when Women in Trucking Association was formed. I copied a lot from the female pilot’s organization but tapped into the people who supported this mission. I had a great team who shared my passion, and we put together a fantastic staff, board and support group. Here we are, nearly twelve years later, with a success story I could never have imagined.
Nicole: What changes to the industry can WIT be attributed to?
Ellen: Changes can be attributed to growth, and growth can be attributed to an increase in female drivers. If you look at the Department of Labor data regarding labor force statistics, they currently show the number of professional “Driver/sales workers and truck drivers” as 3,364.000 in the United States. Of those 7.8% are women, which means there are 262,392 female drivers. If we use these figures, then there has 88% increase in female drivers since 2010. This is pretty amazing. However, when you think of the trucking industry, we aren’t really thinking about those straight trucks pulling into grocery stores to stock chips on the shelves, or laundry services dropping off your freshly dry-cleaned clothing. This description doesn’t seem to be about over the road or long-haul professional drivers.
For that reason, the board of directors at the Women in Trucking Association determined that we need to know if we are making a difference in this industry. So, we decided to create our own WIT Index.
First, we paired with the National Transportation Institute (NTI) which graciously added a question to their quarterly wage surveys. They asked carriers for the percentage of female over-the-road drivers. Surprisingly, many of the carriers had not determined this number and did not know their male-to-female ratio. For those who responded to the NTI survey, the average percentage of over-the-road drivers who are female was 7.13% in 2017 and increased to 7.89% in 2018. The needle was moving slightly, and the number of respondents was increasing.
In 2019, we partnered with Freightwaves to conduct a survey to determine the industry’s participation of women as technicians, safety directors, managers and professional drivers. They received 884 responses from for-hire and private carriers, logistics companies, and freight tech firms.
Overall, the respondents reported that women make up 10% of all over-the-road drivers. We also learned that only 4% of diesel technicians are women and that about 38% of fleet safety professionals are women.
What about the leadership teams? In the Unites States, women currently comprise 7.4% of all CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and about 26% of all board seats, despite recent legislation to establish diversity quotas. The Freightwaves survey found that female executives in trucking make up 36% of the leadership in transportation and just over 45% of non-executive employees.
Each year, we also examine the publicly traded trucking companies by partnering with Memphis University to conduct the research. In 2020, of the 14 publicly traded carriers, women comprised 22% of the board of director seats, but only 9% of the leadership executives. (One carrier has no women serving on their board of directors and seven carriers have no female executives.)
What have we learned from monitoring this data? It reinforces the mission of Women in Trucking Association to encourage the employment of women in the transportation industry and to address obstacles (such as unconscious bias in hiring and promoting), and to celebrate the successes of the women who have become visible and influential.
Nicole: What are the top three challenges female drivers face today?
Ellen: The three top challenges would be related to personal safety.
- Does the carrier truly care about the driver as an individual? If so, does the driver have the authority to say she won’t drive in inclement weather or in an area of protest.
- How well maintained is the equipment?
- Where is the driver loading or unloading? Is the are safe and well lit?
Another challenge related to safety is the training environment. We do not believe that carriers should force a woman to be trained by a male trainer if they prefer a woman. We advocate for a same gender training OPTION. For data, we have a white paper that outlines this issue.
For us at WIT, the challenge is to overcome the industry stereotype that trucking is a male dominated industry. We use our members’ stories to tell others about their jobs. We have a member of the month as well as a driver of the year program to share their stories.
Nicole: In your experience what are the beneficial key differences that women bring to the transportation industry?
Ellen: Women are risk averse, which means we are less likely to make decisions that might result in negative consequences. Whether it’s driving or making decisions in the C-Suite, women make decisions differently and may not come to the same conclusions, so all voices need to be heard. There are numerous studies that show a more diverse leadership team results in higher net profits.
What can shippers and carriers do to attract more female drivers?
Ellen Voie offers her tips on what can be done to increase the percentage of females in the industry.
1. Let them know you WANT to hire women.
If your recruiting ad doesn’t include women, or worse yet, excludes women, you won’t get their attention. Don’t always show a male driver in your ads, and don’t assume the only woman in your ad should be the wife at home. Go back and look at your recruiting advertisements and see if they appeal to women. Ask some of your female staff members if they would respond to your company’s ad.
2. Tell women why you are interested in hiring them.
For example, do you have a real desire to hire women as drivers because you believe they are capable and competent? Women don’t want any special privileges; they just want a level playing field to compete for jobs as a professional, not because of gender. Don’t ever patronize women or give them the impression that you are hiring them because you are filling some quota or making a statement. We can see through that!
3. Let potential drivers know why you are a good fit for them.
Do you have loads that are regional instead of long distance? Do you have equipment that makes the job less physically demanding? Do you have female trainers available? Do you make every effort to provide a safe environment for all drivers?
4. Safety is a top priority when hiring women.
Making sure the work place is safe is important, but you should also consider ways to protect your drivers from harassment. The trucking industry is very male dominated, so women are often harassed on the job. Make sure YOUR drivers aren’t the source of this negative behavior. Talk to your drivers about how they can work together as peers.
The more you can remove the physical aspect of the job, the easier it will be to recruit and retain women (and men!). Order your trucks with as much technology as you can afford. Air ride seats, brakes, hydraulic dollies, and even automatic transmissions, take less physical stamina and relieve some of the strain drivers experience each day. More driving, less unloading, cranking, pushing, and pulling will save your drivers from pain down the road.
6. Basic needs.
Be sure your terminal has equal access to restrooms and locker facilities. If you have a company store, make sure you stock women’s clothing sizes and feminine products. Ask your drivers for their basic needs and they’ll tell you what you’re missing.
7. Train, educate, and mentor.
Help your drivers be the best they can be. Teach them about safety and how to avoid a hazardous work environment. Give them lessons on self-defense and how to avoid and deflect harassment. Provide the knowledge they need to do their job well. Also, if you have female drivers already, pair them with a new recruit to give them a different perspective. Encourage them to talk on the phone and meet in person and help them in the process. Sometimes a driver needs to know there’s someone who understands her (or his) situation and can relate to them.
8. Set an example.
Promote women into leadership roles and make sure they are visible to your drivers. If you have female dispatchers, managers, and others who are leaders in your company, feature them in your newsletter, on your website, and in your advertising. Welcome and encourage women to apply for leadership roles within your organization.