An estimated 200,000 women can be found behind the wheel of big rigs across the U.S. That might sound like a lot, but it actually represents less than 5 percent of the nearly 4 million-member truck-driver work force. It also points to an opportunity for an industry that's grappled with labor shortages since the 1980s and currently needs tens of thousands of drivers to keep up with demand. It would seem that an obvious part of the solution would be to simply recruit more female drivers.
It could happen, but some things have to change first. That's where Ellen Voie comes in. In 2007, she founded Women In Trucking (WIT), a nonprofit organization that promotes careers in trucking for woman and works to dismantle barriers that keep more women from joining the driver ranks. Today, she is the group's president and CEO.
Voie started WIT based on her own experiences. Although she has never been a truck driver, she has a long tenure in the motor freight industry. Prior to founding WIT, she worked in a variety of roles in the field, most recently serving as manager of retention and recruiting programs at Schneider Inc.
In addition to heading up the nonprofit, Voie is a frequent speaker at industry events and has published numerous articles and two books. Her blog appears on the White House website.
Voie spoke recently with DC Velocity Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about her career, the genesis and goals of WIT, and how things must change to attract more women into the motor freight work force.
Q: How did you end up in this profession?
A: In high school, I had this passion for things like engines, woodworking, and drafting. Essentially, I was most engaged in careers that boys usually pick. I just thought things like that were so cool. So I took shop class in high school, which wasn't common back in the 1970s.
My first job was drafting at a steel fabrication plant, where I was designing material handling equipment, like pallets and racks. My manager approached me one day and said, "We're opening up a shipping department. Would you like to move over to the traffic side?" I had no clue what that meant, but I said sure. They sent me to school for traffic and transportation management, and I became the company's traffic manager.
This was at just about the time deregulation took place, so I learned how to read tariffs, how to audit freight bills, and things like that. That led to an opportunity once I got married and started my family to do consulting for trucking companies. I did that for 18 years while I raised my family.
Q: It's still largely a man's world out there in trucking, and women sadly are often subjected to some not-so-nice things: cat calling, harassment, and even assaults. Did that have anything to do with your decision to form this group?
A: What you describe is one of the things we're trying to change at Women In Trucking. We need to make women feel safe, which is not always the case today. For example, I recently found out that some schools house women in their driver training program in a bunkhouse environment—a co-ed bunkhouse! A female student contacted us to tell us that she had been accepted into a training program and was told they would provide lodging. When she got there, she learned she'd be sharing sleeping quarters with men.
We all want to make this industry a better place for women, yet we still see some outdated practices that need to change. That's why a big part of what we do is call attention to issues like co-ed bunkhouses and look to solve those problems. We developed an anti-harassment employment guide for our carrier members. It talks about a lot of these types of issues.
As another example, it used to be that we would match drivers up for training or team purposes by asking whether they smoked or not. That was the only question asked. Our anti-harassment employment guide expands on that greatly. Carriers are urged to ask questions that go deeper into matters that influence compatibility. We urge them to include questions like: "Can you discuss politics? Can you discuss religion? Do you have any food allergies?" It's more in-depth, and helps ensure that drivers are comfortable with each other from the outset.
Q: Are carriers doing enough to dismantle the barriers that discourage women from getting behind the wheel?
A: Some carriers that are starting to pay attention are really finding success in their efforts. The forward-thinking firms will come to us and ask about best practices and things they should improve.
Q: How about the challenges that are beyond a company's control—such as facilities and accommodations for drivers when they're on the road?
A: We do work with the truck stops. Many have done things like putting hair-dryers in their restrooms and enclosing showers to provide privacy. We can't have a locker-room environment the way we did in the past.
There is also the security issue. Even though many are really trying hard to put more lighting in to make their premises safer, some truck stops just aren't a safe environment. For that reason, part of what we do is teach women to be "situationally aware." Don't walk between trailers. Don't park in the back. Always have your keys and your cellphone with you. Walk with a purpose.
Q: As you think about your experiences both in the motor freight industry and with Women In Trucking, are you glad about your career choice?
A: Oh, yes. In fact, I love what I do. I love the fact that Women In Trucking is making a difference. I love the positive feedback, not just from drivers but also from companies. I love the fact that we are creating awareness and giving companies opportunities to increase the percentage of women in their work force—not just behind the wheel, but also as technicians and safety directors and managers.
But we still have a long way to go. We recently came out with the Women In Trucking Index [which tracks women's influence at publicly held carriers]. It showed that of the 15 publicly traded companies, half have no women in leadership roles and no women on their boards. The ones that do have more women, a more diverse work force, are going to be more successful.
Q: What are some key attributes or characteristics that make a woman a good candidate for a career in trucking?
A: Let's talk first about women in trucking management. You have to be comfortable working in a very male-dominated environment. Women make up 17 percent of management in the trucking industry, so you have to be able to speak up and you have to call attention to your successes. Women typically don't do that. Women like to thank their team and say, "Hey, I am successful because of the people I surround myself with." We need to say, "Hey, I am doing a good job. I deserve a promotion." At our last conference, one of our speakers was a woman who had written a book called Women Don't Ask. She talked about how woman need to ask for raises and negotiate salaries.
Helping woman with these issues is one of the biggest benefits of our annual conference. I think networking is so important. When you go to a conference like the one organized by the American Trucking Associations—and I have been going for many, many years—you'll find it is 90 percent men. At our conference, we have about 90 percent women. The networking opportunities are just amazing. You can find somebody who has a role you're interested in and ask them about it. We had two women who owned truck dealerships meet at one of our events. They were delighted to connect because it's so rare to find a woman who owns a truck dealership, and they've since become friends.
Q: How about women who might be interested in actually getting behind the wheel? Are there any characteristics or attributes that make someone a good driver candidate?
A: We've done some research on what makes for a good driver. For women, they have to be very independent and self-sufficient. They also have be comfortable being assertive and thick-skinned. Another thing we found out is that a lot of female drivers are also motorcycle riders. That indicates they're willing to try new things and aren't afraid of a nontraditional role.
Q: As you look back at your career to date, what have you found to be particularly satisfying?
A: Being recognized by the White House has to top the list. In 2012, Women In Trucking received an award from the White House for being a "Transportation Innovator Champion of Change." I got to bring my board to the White House for this honor, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was there. It was really amazing to be recognized at that level.
Q: How will you know that your efforts with Women In Trucking have succeeded?
A: When a woman hops out of a truck and nobody makes a comment or gives it a second thought because it's such a common occurrence. When women are routinely found in the boardroom and in leadership roles at carriers. I don't know what the exact number would be, but I would like to see women have a much greater presence in the trucking industry.