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It’s not that often that you see a female behind the wheel of a truck – and that’s not a sexist comment; it’s fact. The transport industry is still very much a male-dominated sector, despite the fact that companies are crying out for drivers amidst calls for greater equality.
But Ellen Voie is a woman with a mission to change all that; her organisation, Women in Trucking, with the support of Volvo Trucks, has managed to achieve a total of female drivers in the USA greater than any other country.
In Europe, around 1% of truck drivers are women - not a great deal but certainly the average around the world – and all this at a time that there is a shortage of drivers in the transport industry. Yet in the US, a nation with 3.2 million truck drivers, women account for just over 5% of them as Ellen’s organisation makes inroads into the testosterone-filled sector in the five years that it has been in business, attempting to change attitudes and norms in the industry.
Ellen is not only the founder but also the president of the organisation, and she says that the US’s current driver shortage would be addressed by doubling the number of female truck drivers to just over 10%.
It was back in 2007 that Ellen Voie started Women in Trucking after discovering that very few women even considered working in the industry – as drivers or in other areas. As the industry itself was riddled with sexism – and still is, according to Ellen – it was difficult for haulage companies to even consider women for driving positions.
It was an almighty challenge for the newly formed group, but it has now succeeded in bringing about a positive change in the US, with around 2,000 members and three employees, all of whom are working actively on getting information to schools, government agencies, politicians, haulage companies and other transport companies.
“It isn’t just the transport industry, but also the whole of society that can benefit from more women being employed in the traditional male professions. Female drivers are often safer drivers and incur less damage to their trucks, which is something from which haulage companies can benefit,” stresses Ellen.
Apparently now, in the USA, it is not uncommon to find driving teams which involve whole families where a married couple, father and daughter or boyfriend and girlfriend work together to undertake long-distance transport work. (Now this bit may NOT surprise anyone with a certain attitude towards Americans.) Their trucks are really no more than extended trailers, with bathroom, kitchen and ‘bedrooms’ in which the ‘teams’ live, and Ellen believes that this is a reason why so many women have entered the industry.
“Women have a natural way into the industry and they share the responsibility and the cost of a truck with a partner,” she explains.
Maybe this reason, and of course the vast size of America and coast-to-coast transport distances, is why the idea hasn’t hit the UK or taken off, but there is no reason why it couldn’t be adopted in Europe, especially with cross-continent deliveries.
And it’s this European possibility that perhaps has attracted the attention of Volvo Trucks, who are also members of Women in Trucking and is actively supporting the organisation’s work.
Svajone Drabatiene is the Director of Brand Development at Volvo Trucks North America, and is keen to spotlight one aspect of the partnership between Volvo Trucks and Women in Trucking.
She says, “It’s important to have female role models and that’s why Volvo Trucks is sponsoring Women in Trucking’s ‘Salute to Women Behind the Wheel’. This is an annual event which celebrates female truck drivers, many of whom have covered at least a million incident-free miles.”
There are organisations similar to Women In Trucking in Europe, including the UK, France and Sweden and these are pushing for legislation that could see more women behind the wheel. In fact, the ETF’s (European Transport Federation) women’s committee is campaigning for an increase in the recruitment of women in the transport industry.
Vice Chairman Brigitta Paasis aware of problems throughout the industry that makes the campaign laborious yet necessary: “As long as there is cheap labour available in Eastern Europe, the haulage companies are going to employ those people rather than existing drivers or women who are keen to start driving. I wish the associations would do more in this area.”
Since 1999, Volvo Trucks in Sweden have been organising pretty successful Ladies’ Days, where women are given the opportunity to not only learn about the industry but to drive trucks too.
“The haulage companies that do not employ women risk losing out on valuable skills and know-how, which is neither good nor particularly smart. I am convinced that women have a great deal to offer the industry when it comes to safe, fuel-efficient driving,” says Martin Bramsved, global manager Corporate Social Responsibility at Volvo Trucks.
And, I can read your mind here, before you say it, driving a truck now doesn’t necessarily need the physique of a body-builder. It may have in the past, but not now, as Mr Bramsved explains: “Truck cabs are designed for drivers to live and work in, no matter whether they are women or men and independent of the strength of the drivers’ arms. For example, the drivers’ seats and steering wheels in Volvo trucks are extremely adaptable and are therefore ideal for short and tall drivers alike.”
So maybe soon it won’t be that unusual, once companies get past the fog of testosterone, Page Three Girls and Yorkie Bar wrappers that cloud the issue. “It’s incredibly important that manufacturers get involved, just like Volvo Trucks is doing. After all, if there are no drivers, they won’t be able to sell trucks,” says Ellen Voie.