As industries go, oil and gas extraction, ship and boat building and crop production are pretty macho. But not as much as trucking, which has a lower percentage of women in the workforce, according to the federal government.
Women made up 46.8 percent of all laborers 16 years or older last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But of the more than 2 million workers in the trucking transportation field, just 11.4 percent were female — on par with sectors such as iron, steel and cement manufacturing and mineral mining.
And their ranks continue to shrink.
Even as the overall number of active truckers in the U.S. swelled 1.8 percent year over year to 3.5 million in 2015, the cadre of female drivers shrank 10 percent, or 20,000, to 177,000, according to a recent report from the American Trucking Assns.
The most recent count has women constituting just 5.1 percent of truck drivers — the smallest percentage since 2011.
Desiree Ann Wood, president of the nonprofit group REAL Women in Trucking, Inc., blames a disconnect between portrayals of the industry and a much harsher reality. Last year, 70 incoming female truckers reached out to the group for help; fewer than 30 have done so this year.
“This job is not for everyone, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman or how big or small or strong or weak you are,” said Wood, who is a trucker for a private farm operation. “It’s really a lot of people falling through the cracks in the first two or three weeks and even more in the first six months — it’s a real churn-and-burn system.”
Freight demand began sliding toward the end of last year, stressing businesses all along the trucking supply chain.
Ellen Voie, president of the nonprofit Women In Trucking organization, said the negative economic trend might have contributed to a decline in female drivers.
Most women enter trucking because of a man — a father, a partner — and find employment as part of a team, she said.
“Anecdotally, whenever freight goes down and there aren’t enough miles for a team, the guy keeps running and the wife goes home and looks for another job,” Voie said.
But both Voie and Wood aren’t entirely convinced that women truckers are losing ground. The government numbers are convoluted and include not just long-haul truckers but also delivery drivers who do short, small runs to local retailers, they said.
Wood said that she was told by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the data are collected from U.S. census records, which are based on questionnaires that frequently traveling drivers likely miss.
“When you haven’t checked your mail for three months, you get the urgent stuff and everything else goes into the trash,” she said.
In 2014, the American Trucking Associations reported a surge of female truckers. And in addition to growing membership in her own group, Voie said she has heard reports of more women joining carriers and truck driving schools.
Covenant Transport of Chattanooga, Tenn., says it has one of the largest female fleets in the industry, with women making up more than 15 percent of its professional drivers. The company operates a Facebook page called Women of Covenant with 250 likes.
Last year, Miami-based commercial fleet management service Ryder System Inc. said it would offer a “female-friendly vehicle package for lease” that includes ergonomic details such as adjusted height, better placement of cab grab handles and dash cluster gauges, adjustable seat belt straps, a cab security system and more accessible oil and coolant checks.
Voie said her organization is preparing an index based on surveys of hundreds of trucking carriers focused on so-called over-the-road drivers.
“I’ve never felt that the government numbers truly reflect the situation,” she said. “We’re moving the needle. I know we are.”
Still, trucking life is tough for women.
“We’re not telling them what it’s really like, not giving them a full impression of the challenges they’ll face once they’re in this industry,” Voie said. “Instead, we just say, ‘This is a great job and you’ll make x number of dollars.’”
Wood, who said she personally endured a “horrible” training experience, said that many aspiring female truckers are women who are “trying to overcome difficult life situations” and “want a chance to make a life for themselves and become self-sufficient.”
“They hear that there’s a massive trucker shortage from these media campaigns about how trucking welcomes them and is designing lady trucks for them,” she said. “They don’t hear that you could get sexually assaulted or beat up during training, that there are these abhorrent, ridiculously unsafe carriers that recruit like crazy but are never held accountable.”
Another concern: a dearth of female trainers, according to Marge Bailey, chief executive of job board and informational website LadyTruckDrivers.com.
“The main concern I heard all the time is that women are waiting three weeks, two months, six months for companies to get them female trainers,” she said. “They feel safer that way.”
Bailey, who has worked in the industry for nearly four decades, said she explains to women that male trainers have gone through background checks, but notes that some companies refuse to pair female students with male trainers for liability reasons.
By some measures, only one in six women make it through training, Wood said. But in the interim, companies “get a few weeks out of them working 14 or 15 cents a mile.”
Wood is bursting with horror stories. There’s the female trainer with three decades of experience who helped male truckers get jobs with major retailers but was told she wasn’t qualified for the same roles. Or the women who have to resort to using a boyfriend’s or brother’s email address to inquire about positions.
Then, there are women in shipping and receiving, recruiting or freight research who “sit in their business suits and heels and look down their nose at lady truckers,” Wood said.
“That’s reality for what’s going on,” Wood said. “There are a lot of local jobs where women are just overlooked, where companies won’t even entertain the idea of your resume. You have to be kind of clever to engage them.”
Even the carriers that want to hire women drivers are at a loss.
“They don’t know how or where to recruit or what women are looking for in a job,” Voie said.
Female truckers want good relationships with their dispatchers and a sense of purpose, she said. And they need guidance.
Trucking organizations for women increasingly offer mentorship programs and operate forums and blog posts where drivers can discuss culture shock on the road, mental health, safety, tactics for getting security clearance to enter nuclear facilities, beauty tips and more.
“We need to give these women accurate information from Day One to keep them safe,” Wood said. “Women do make awesome truck drivers, but knowledge is power.”