The United States is in the middle of a reckoning about workplace sexual harassment and assault, and from Hollywood to Washington D.C., women in trucking are speaking up about the experiences that traumatized them and the working conditions that stunted their careers. This national conversation is as painful as it is overdue, but there are few professions that need to participate in it more than trucking, in which a culture of silence has put many women through horrific ordeals, and robbed the industry of a desperately-needed labor force.
Trucking has always been a male-dominated profession, but even as other industries once seen as “macho” have gradually opened up to women, trucking remains stubbornly closed. Roughly five percent of all US truckers are women, a statistic that has barely changed in years, even as every other aspect of the industry has been thrown into upheaval. Trucking is weathering the dawn of the Electronic Logging Device (ELD) mandate, the looming threat (or promise) of automation, and above all, a national driver shortage that is driving up rates and leaving carriers scrambling to employ qualified drivers. The American Trucking Association reported a shortage of 50,000 drivers in 2017, and individual carriers often see turnover rates between 90 and 300 percent within a single year. An industry with such a serious personnel problem needs to ask itself why it is locking out half the nation’s workers, but trucking seems unwilling to confront the answer: women don’t become truck drivers because they are (rightfully) afraid.
Female truck drivers contend with a whole host of unique issues, but they are never in more danger than at the beginning of the careers, when they must pair with a more experienced driver for weeks of training. The experience of working with a complete stranger in extremely close quarters and under stressful circumstances is intense for any driver, but for many women, it is nothing short of harrowing. According to lawsuits and personal testimonies, female trainees have reported trainers that attempted to coerce sex from them to earn a recommendation, trainers who verbally and physically harassed them, threatened to abandon them on the side of the road, or raped them. More than one driver reported that she was able to fight off her trainer’s attempted rape only because she slept with a weapon under her pillow.
As horrifying as these stories are, more troubling still is the indifference female drivers often face when reporting incidents like this. Women have accused their companies of refusing to take their complaints seriously, often allowing their abusers to continue training other female drivers, or retaliating against the women for complaining at all. This March, after five years of appeals, a district court upheld one driver’s $1.5 million suit against her former employer for failing to take action against her abusive trainer who reduced her load count and income to punish her for speaking out. This case sets an important precedent, but it’s still the exception to the rule. Most women will never take their employers to court over these matters; they’ll simply leave the industry, becoming more grist for the mill, and taken as more evidence that women aren’t “tough enough” to handle the job.
For too long, the trucking industry has shrugged at these issues, as if they are too big and too fundamental to change, but there are concrete solutions available to help women feel and be safer on the road. In selecting trainers, carriers should take background checks seriously and not, for example, trap women in cabs with men who have been convicted of sexual assault. Trucking companies should put all their driver trainers through sexual harassment courses, both to protect their drivers and themselves from costly lawsuits. The industry should collectively pressure rest stops to provide separate bathing facilities for women, complete with locking doors. At a recent Women in Trucking conference, Wal-Mart executives asked female drivers what would make them feel safer behind the wheel. Their requests included unique locks for every truck (as opposed to redundancy within fleets) and portable toilets in sleeper cabs for occasions when they did not feel safe leaving the truck. On the one hand, these requests speak to a heartbreaking lack of trust between female drivers and their male colleagues, but on the other, they are achievable goals, and if trucking is serious about recruiting women drivers, it will make them a priority.
Trucking is a difficult job, for women and men alike. It’s physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding, and not everyone is capable of doing it. Advocating for women to join this workforce does not mean demanding special treatment; quite the opposite. It means recognizing that female truck drivers already contend with the same challenges as their male counterparts, and should not also have to deal with unwanted sexual attention or the threat of intimidation. Trucking has many issues to address that transcend gender, particularly stagnant wages, and resolving these will attract higher caliber employees and keep desperate carriers from hiring so many bad apples.
Trucking’s harassment problem is a situation that requires leadership from across the industry. Carriers must reexamine their hiring and training practices and the way they process internal complaints. Shippers should make it clear that they expect their warehouse and office personnel to treat all drivers with respect. And the vast majority of male drivers who don’t actually participate in harassment must start holding their peers accountable for behavior which reflects upon the entire industry. Consider this: trucking will likely become fully automated before women make up even 20 percent of the nation’s drivers. It is ludicrous and tragic to accept that it’s easier to make trucks that drive themselves than it is to make this industry safer for women.