“Why don’t you go back to the kitchen where you belong?”
When Gay Cooper first started driving trucks over a decade ago, she says she’d occasionally hear comments like that from male truckers. She’s also overcome physical challenges, such as seats too long for her 5 foot, two-inch frame (“You can feel like the blood circulation getting cut off from your legs”), and concerns about her safety.
Cooper didn’t let any of it faze her. But the trucking industry, facing a growing labor shortage, wants to remove challenges keeping women from getting behind the wheel. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5.8% of truck drivers were women in 2014—lower than the percentage of female construction managers or mechanical engineers.
Ryder Dedicated, a logistics outsourcing division of Ryder System Inc., is working to change that. For a start, they’ve partnered with the nonprofit advocacy group Women in Trucking to guide cab manufacturers in making trucks themselves more adaptable. Among other things, that means adjustable seats and pedals for shorter drivers, lower steps for accessing both cabs and freight, and less fatiguing automatic transmissions. Those improvements don’t just benefit women, as the driver population is also aging—now averaging 55—according to BLS.
Security measures also benefit more than just women—all long-haul truckers can be vulnerable to violence or theft as they sleep in their trucks, often in isolated rest stops. Volvo is among manufacturers that now offers trucks with an alarm system to deter intruders while the cab is stationary. That would have been a boon for Lillie McGee Drennan, who in 1929 became the first woman to earn a commercial driver’s license—and purportedly carried a pistol for safety on the road.
Other solutions are trickier. According to Ellen Voie, CEO of Women in Trucking, women truck drivers are less likely to wear their safety belts than men, for basic physical reasons. A belt redesigned for women's comfort and safety is still in the future.
But less tangible factors may be the most intractable. Trucking’s image as a profession for men hasn’t changed, even in a world full of female lawyers, doctors, and soldiers. Then there’s the weeks spent away from home. Gay Cooper was a long haul trucker for years, but she jumped when Ryder offered her the chance to drive shorter routes that would take her home to her grandchildren every night.
On the other hand, Sylvia Chavez, 25, says the job has advantages women should consider. “If you want a low stress environment, not deal with any kind of drama, this is the place to be . . . To a certain degree you’re your own boss.” Voie also points out that trucking also offers decent pay without requiring a college degree.
John Diez, President of Ryder Dedicated, says the decision to cater to women is “absolutely” a response to the driver shortage. But the program is still in its early stages, and so far the company’s percentage of female drivers is still in line with industry averages. The coming year will bring more aggressive outreach and recruiting efforts.
Voie claims she has recently seen an increase in women in the profession overall. That’s likely related to social attitudes that are finally changing a bit—Chavez reports much improved attitudes from male colleagues.
That shifting culture could have a big benefit in offsetting wage pressure on trucking companies. There could also be broader social benefits: According to the Transportation Research Board, extensive research has shown that women are more cautious drivers than men.