Stephanie Klang’s journey started ordinarily enough: with a man and his truck.
When Klang was 21 years old, she fell in love with a long-haul truck driver. They married in 1979, and she developed a lifelong romance with trucking.
“I was young and missing him,” Klang said. “I wanted to be with him all the time.”
She began accompanying her husband on trips from their northeast Colorado town to haul grain through the Midwest for Allen Mitchek Feed & Grain.
That was a “very dusty job,” she said. “Dry freight is much cleaner.”
Klang enjoyed life on the road so much that she obtained her own commercial trucking license.
“There weren’t many women on the road, team or solo, in 1979,” she said.
More than 35 years later, Klang remains part of an exceedingly small minority: Women sit behind the wheel of just 6 percent of the commercial trucks crisscrossing American highways on any given day.
To the American Trucking Associations, that stark number represents an opportunity at a time when the industry needs tens of thousands of new drivers to keep up with demand.
Women are an obvious source of new drivers, the ATA said in a report on the shortage late last year — estimated to be 48,000 drivers and projected to keep growing. Women make up 47 percent of all U.S. workers. Yet the share of female drivers has remained stagnant between 4.5 percent and 6 percent since 2000, the ATA said.
The barriers to raising that number are social, physical and institutional.
“There’s still a perception that it’s a man’s job,” Klang said. “But trucking is 95 percent confidence, and 5 percent skills. It’s not physically strenuous.”
Still, there are physical differences between men and women that present a challenge to getting more females into the cab, Ellen Voie, president of the Women In Trucking Association in Plover, Wis., told Trucks.com.
With an average height of 5 feet, 4 inches, female truck drivers are 6 inches shorter than the typical male driver. Female truck drivers have an average weight of 160 pounds, Voie said, while their male counterparts are 213 pounds. Their smaller and shorter stature makes it harder for women to reach the controls.
It’s also more challenging for a small driver to properly adjust most of the air-ride seats on today’s big-rig trucks, Voie said.
“Today’s trucks are not designed with women in mind,” said Jeanette Kersten, associate professor in the College of Management at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wis.
“Given the driver shortage and the changing demographics that the trucking industry faces, it’s important for manufacturers to make trucks more female-friendly through moderate design changes for seats, pedals and gauges,” Kersten said.
Voie is lobbying for those changes.
She met with Peterbilt engineers at the manufacturer’s factory in Denton, Texas, earlier this year. And Voie also addressed the Future Truck Committee at the ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council Conference in Nashville in late February.
The shortage of truck drivers isn’t the only reason that recruiting women makes good business sense. It could potentially improve safety, Voie said.
Male drivers, on average, have twice the number of crashes as women. They are more likely to be involved in crashes that occur on curves, in the dark or while passing other vehicles, according to a report by the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, England.
“Women take fewer risks so the accidents involving women are at slower speeds,” Voie said. “There is less damage to the equipment and less loss of life.”
The dearth of women in trucking extends from the highway up through management.
Women In Trucking looked at 15 carriers that are public companies that must report certain management data to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Seven have no women serving on their boards of directors. Additionally, 10 of the 15 show no women in the executive suite, the the group reported.
“If you’re looking for more female drivers for your fleet,” Voie said in announcing the results of her group’s study, “you will need to create an environment where women are visibly leading these initiatives.”
Klang acknowledges that recruiting women to the industry is a challenge because trucking can take its toll on family life. In her case, that means an average of 280 nights away from home each year.
Nevertheless, she said, the freedom of the open road, a penchant for seeing all 48 contiguous states and the solid benefits package can make driving an ideal career for some women
“Nobody tells you when to stop and rest or when to shower,” she said from her home in Diamond, Mo., after returning from hauling pallets for Kraft foods between Dallas and Springfield, Mo. A few days later, she would depart for Seattle, 2,100 miles away, with a new load. “There’s a freedom to it.”
She and her husband spent eight years with five small companies that have since closed for business, finally joining Con-way Truckload in 1987. When Klang’s husband became unhappy with the company and the marriage unraveled, they divorced in 1995. She remained at Con-way.
“When I joined Con-way, I knew I was home for the rest of my life,” Klang said. “For the first time in seven years, I was hired on my own merit, not as my husband’s ‘little helper.’”
Now Klang has her own little helper: Fred, her 15-year-old tomcat, rides shotgun in her Kenworth T680.
The daily grind varies, but Klang prefers hitting the road by 4 or 5 in the morning and driving for nearly 10 hours before finding a spot for the evening.
“Legally we can drive 11 if everything works out — you know, construction, traffic,” she said. “Our biggest worry every day now is where are we going to park tonight.”
She listens to NPR by day and watches her flat-screen television by night.
“My Christmas present to myself is TV programming,” she said. “Right now I’m on ‘Scandal.’”
The bed, where Klang sleeps three-quarters of the year, is a twin extra long.
“You buy all your sheets when all the kids are going back to college,” she said. “It’s the only time you can find extra-long twin sheets at Kohl’s.”
In 2006, Klang married again — this time to a fellow Con-way trucker with a cat of his own.
“Fred and Greg have a love-hate relationship,” Klang said of the cats. “They love to aggravate each other. There’s a lot of growling from both males but not much else. Greg is a good guy for letting Fred live out his life with me.”