Why don't women become truckers?

  • Published
Shamim standing in front of trucks

All over the world it's the same - a woman driving a lorry gets funny looks and has to listen to unfunny jokes. It's a career women are not expected to choose, it seems, and often one they don't even consider. But why not? The job no longer requires brute strength and some women who do it say they love it.

"When I'm out on the road and a wagon will go past I do actually feel like I've got three heads because they do look about three or four times as if to say, 'What a young girl driving a wagon?'"

Natalie Tipton is a 28-year-old lorry driver based in north-east England, but her experience is not unique. It's one that Ellen Voie of the US-based Women in Trucking Association also recognises.

"It's interesting to see what peoples' reactions are when a female jumps out of the driver's seat. They usually get looks from people like, 'Wow I didn't know women could drive trucks, I didn't know women did drive trucks.'"

And in Pakistan, a country with only one woman lorry driver - Shamim Akhtar - some people on the street in Islamabad didn't just think it was an odd career choice, but morally wrong.

"I think that for this lady who drives a truck, this profession does not suit her being a woman," said one man. "It is a very tough and difficult job. If she wants to she can do something else. And if she wants to drive then maybe she should just drive a smaller car."

Only 1.2% of drivers of HGVs, or heavy goods vehicles, in the UK are women and it's a similar story across Europe. In the US it's a little higher at 5.8 % but women are still very much in the minority.

So while it may be that only a minority of drivers live up to the stereotype - brawny, macho and dressed in a lumberjack shirt - lorry driving is, at present, still largely a man's world. And women who venture into it often have a lot to put up with.

"You have to be quite thick-skinned. You have to be quite ballsy as well. Just because you're in such a male-orientated environment and because there is quite a lot of banter," says Natalie.

Media caption,

Natalie Tipton is a 28-year-old lorry driver based in north-east England

"You do get quite a lot of joking about and you do have to realise that it is just a joke and they're not being serious. That's just how men are so... if they were to make a sexist joke you wouldn't take it personally."

Natalie mentions a time when a male driver said: "I bet you ran a mile when you first got into your truck."

"And I said, 'Why's that?' and he said, 'Because it didn't have a kitchen sink in.' I said, 'Ha ha, very funny.'"

Jenny Tipping, another British trucker, who works as a "trunker" driving overnight along deserted motorways, has also been subjected to this kind of humour.

"I've had people saying, 'You can't possibly be a truck driver because you're wearing a skirt, or you're straight,'" she says.

And it annoys her that it's not only men who subscribe to the stereotype.

"One of the most common responses I get is, 'I couldn't drive that big thing, I couldn't even park my Mini,' which I think is a shame, because I suspect that woman probably can park her Mini," she says.

"It's so closely linked this idea of women not being any good at spatial tasks. I think a lot of women who are actually perfectly capable of driving, they talk themselves out of it. They just assume that because they are female they won't have those skills or they won't be able to learn them as fast as a man. And it's absolute rubbish. I have seen no evidence for it in any of the jobs I have done."

Shamim in Pakistan, however, says that in the few months since she qualified she has come to feel accepted by her male colleagues, and that when her lorry breaks down on the road people are always keen to help her.

"Some come and ask my colleagues who I am. Then my colleagues tell them, 'She is like our mother and she is also a truck driver.' That amazes them and they are very happy to see a woman driving," she says.

This year's season features two weeks of inspirational stories about the BBC's 100 Women and others who are defying stereotypes around the world.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram using the hashtag #100Women.

Natalie, Jenny and Shamim came to trucking for different reasons. Shamim had five children to support and needed money to send them to school as her husband, a gardener, didn't earn enough to cover the fees. First she worked as a car driving instructor, then progressed to vans and passed the test in Islamabad this summer for the largest lorries, at the age of 53.

Natalie, for her part, took up lorry driving after a year out of work, with encouragement from her mother, who at the time ran a small lorry-driving business.

Jenny, meanwhile, only chose the job after completing two Masters degrees, and starting a PhD. The "opportunity to just think" is one of the things she loves about the job. Another is taking in the world around her as she drives - the wildlife, or the phases of the moon.

"Driving up it wasn't quite dark when I set off so I had about an hour or two of daylight before it got dark," she said in an audio diary recorded for the BBC during one of her overnight shifts.

"Autumn is an absolutely stunning season to be driving because the hedgerows are just fantastic. You drive along the motorway and everyone thinks that it's a really brutal atmosphere but if you are high up, as you are in a lorry, you can see the trees, you can see the shrubs, you can see the birds, you can see kestrels ready to swoop down... People think of it as quite a dirty job, and in a way it is, but you can get out and about and see nature in a way that you never can in an office."

These days trucking involves no hard physical exertion.

Image caption,
Ellen Voie campaigns to get more women into lorry driving

"There is a misconception that you need to be big, strong, burly and mechanically adept," says Ellen Voie, whose organisation campaigns to get more women into lorry driving in the US. Automatic gears and hi-tech suspension have helped make driving large vehicles much easier, she says, and it's no longer a job involving a lot of manual labour.

"The equipment has changed so much. There's automated transmissions, there's 'air-ride' everything and a lot of technology in the trucks. Drivers are home a lot more often, and they don't have to unload their trucks - it's just dropping their trailer and hooking up another one and taking off again."

There is, however, one aspect of the job which arguably puts women at a disadvantage, and that is the necessity for the long-distance driver to spend nights parked up in a truck stop.

Ellen's association advises women drivers not to park at the back of the parking lot, and not to walk between trucks, to reduce the risk of harassment. It's also working with US firms to improve truck design and install alarm systems which turn the lights on or blast the horn if anyone tries to break in.

Natalie has found that when she spends a night in the cab, she has to sleep "with one eye open", so she has given up overnight journeys.

These are problems that there will soon be an urgent need to resolve, because it seems unlikely that men alone will be able to make up for a serious shortage of drivers. Currently 45,000 drivers are needed in the UK, and a similar number in the US. And this problem will only get worse, as many existing drivers are approaching retirement - 72% in the UK are over the age of 45.

Women react differently to walking into this traditional male environment.

"The day that I passed my HGV test I went out and I think I bought a new set of underwear and some leg wax," says Jenny. "There are some things that people who know me might be surprised that I bother with, like painting my toe nails or getting my eyebrows done. But I think because I do such a masculine job, I quite like to maintain a certain standard of girliness."

Shamim's advice on the other hand is to "kill the woman inside".

"I actually don't feel like a woman any more. I wish that God protects all women so that they don't feel compelled to leave their home to earn a livelihood but if they have to do it because of financial constraints then they should forget that they are women they should only concentrate on the work and kill the woman they are inside… she only needs to be courageous."

There are some who would argue that women actually make better lorry drivers than men.

Ellen says companies in the US are learning that women take fewer risks, and are less likely to have high-speed collisions. Companies often tell her, she adds, that women drivers are "so much better with the customers and the paperwork and the equipment".

Natalie's employers, Brenda and Steve Ward of Ward Brothers in Middlesbrough, currently have just three women drivers among 120 men, but say they would like more.

"As women they tend to be looked at as weak and not really up to the work, but they hold their ground and get on with it to prove their point," Brenda says.

In fact, she says, they are as strong as any of the men.

"They seem very good at their job, they don't cause a lot of issues, and they are dedicated to what they are doing."

Women drivers get paid exactly the same as the men at Ward Brothers, and in both the UK and the US you can be earning a "living wage", as Ellen puts it, after just a few weeks of training.

Natalie says she is "making something of her life". It suits her better than the beauty or care sectors, where many of her friends work, and gives her a sense of freedom. She describes her lorry as her "office on wheels".

"It's basically my workspace," she says. "I'm in control."

Some of your comments:

Donna Smith, Warrington: I love the freedom of when I can take my breaks and completely hate low bridges.

Mirja Nurkkala, Saskatoon, Canada: Women can do driving and everything else included in trucking. I have been driving from 2006, first in Finland and now in Canada. I love my job, wouldn't want to do anything else. And I definitely love to shock people and driving a semi is a perfect way! I know women truckers from all over the world and even though we still have to 'prove ourselves' I can recommend this career to any woman. There are different driving jobs from daytime business hours to living in truck, from neat, no-physical-stuff-included jobs to those where you do everything! And I have seen women do all those dirtiest, hardest tasks just because they need to be done.

Mandy Travers, Newport: I have been driving class 1 for over 25 years... I applied to work for a big local company, filled out application handed it in to the transport manager of the company only to find out that it went straight into office bin... The female co-owner of company saw this and took it out and requested that I get called to come in... I had three interviews ( the men just had to show their licence and told to start Monday)... Putting all that aside I did get a job, and after a few months I proved myself to my fellow drivers who I gave respect to and got it back in abundance... When I decided to leave for pastures new I believe I was the ONLY driver ever to be in tears when handing in my notice. I have been with the same company now for 20 years and its the only job I can start my day with a smile and even after 15 hour shift I still book off with a smile... I love my fellow drivers who have ALWAYS TREATED ME AS AN EQUAL...

Samantha Bradley, Matlock, UK: I was driving lorries for a living in the late 80's early 90's. The one thing that hasn't changed in the UK is suitable clean rest and toilets facilities. If this situation was vastly improved, then more women would feel it a safer, cleaner environment to work in. When I used to night out, I used to arrange to park with other drivers that i knew, friends of my Dad mostly. I would never have considered then or now to park in an isolated place. The other drivers I worked with, all men, were gentlemen. They treated me with respect and helped me as they would another fellow driver. I went on to marry and have a family, and I run a small haulage business with my husband, and yes we have had just one female driver. I think the facility issue has a huge impact on the number of females becoming professional drivers.

Linda Tolly, Englewood, Ohio, US: I love the freedom of the roads and "think time". The movie screen constantly going by and driving into the peacefulness of the night. Full moons, the smell of honeysuckle in the Spring time and when it's rest time I enjoy relaxing in my little neat bunk, my home away from home. I call myself a Werner (Enterprise) warrior and stand strong in the face of all danger realizing I can and do go safely down the road with great joy in my heart knowing... my co-pilot is Jesus. There is so much more to say but I must - get on down the road.

Lucy Rose Hewson, Petersfield, Hampshire: I tramp up and down the country all week every week, I leave home on a Sunday and get home on a Friday, I never know where I'll be, as the saying goes "home is where you park it". To survive in this industry you need mental strength and stamina not because your a woman but because of what the job entails, the concentration needed and the general lack of disrespect from the general public. I'm not going to pretend it's all roses and rainbows because it isn't however the good days out weigh the bad. When you've got a truck your proud of, it's clean and the sun's shining with an open road in front of you I can honestly say I'm living the dream. Lorry driving isn't a job choice it's a way of life and it's in our DNA regardless off sex. I am a not a tomboy but I am also not a girly girl, my hair is done and my nails are always done we are breaking the stereotypical mould and people don't like it, but does it look like we care? We have earned the respect in this job and we can do it just as well as any other man. I'm a driver first, woman second.

Sarah Wetherell, Thirsk: What a short-sighted narrow-minded article. I am an owner operator and my line of work is plant/abnormal load transportation. Myself and other female drivers that I know are perfectly capable of roping/sheeting and using chains to secure heavy/awkward loads. This article gives the impression that there is nothing physical to do therefore it can be done by women, seriously?

Lucy Leatham, South Molton, North Devon: I am a female long distance tipper lorry driver and stay away all week. I have done this for 5 months and love it. Love: •Never having sales targets! •The freedom of the open road •Exploring parts of the uk I have never been to •Working for a very good supportive company •My boyfriend is a driver at the same firm so we do park up together at times. Hate: •Being scared about where to park overnight (although I only park in Motorway services and my boss agrees with this) •Never getting out the cab at night •Foreign drivers staring at me or walking over to my cab just to look at me •Nearly every place I deliver they ask me "How long I have done this?" And "why am I a lorry driver?" I am like a few of these lady drivers, I get my hair, eyebrows and nails done regularly and keep in good shape.

Jessica, Cannock: I have been driving HGV's for 13 years and still love it just as much as when I started. I love the driving, the feeling of been king of the road and the fact that you are your own boss once you are out on the road. No work colleagues breathing down your neck. I am good at my job which gives me job satisfaction and I get to see the country and meet lots of different people. They are long hours though and you do get treated badly by other motorists and people that think they are better than you because you're only a lorry driver.

Lindsey Williams, Wrexham, UK: I have had a class one license for about 24 years. My childhood was spent on the family farm and I was driving a tractor at 11 years, so I guess that is how it started. Driving a big rig has given me confidence and self esteem. It gives my a chance to see the country and appreciate nature. I have earned the respect of my driving colleagues. It is a wonderful feeling to know that I have earned their respect. Bad bits - I hate being in big queues of stationary traffic.

Jess Morton, Nottingham: I passed my cat C test last summer, spent a few weeks temping then got a full time job collecting confidential material for destruction. It was a very physical job, collecting sacks/boxes of paper etc which I had to load myself. They could weigh up to 50kg each. I was the only female driver to be hired by the firm. At one particular place, where I was collecting approx 200 sacks from the second story (no lift) the female manager rang my boss, asking if he realised he had sent a woman! I have since left that job to start a degree, I do intend to start temping again.

Rebecca Horsfall, Winchester, UK: I was a lorry driver 25 years ago, when it was REALLY abnormal for women to drive trucks. The porn photos all over the walls of depots where I picked up or dropped off machine parts and cables were incredible - because no women ever went there. Of course the men were sexist. They were always trying to take over loading my wagon or roping it for me because they didn't believe I could manage. But it had its fun side too. There were so few women that whenever I got into a scrape or did something daft, I could speak to another trucker I'd never met before a week later, two hundred miles away, and he'd say, "aren't you the bird who washed her truck cab with diesel by mistake instead of water?" or "are you the bird who unloaded a 4-ton reel of cable into a wet patch on a building site and it sank?" and I'd have to say, "Yep, that's me." It's great being a woman trucker in a man's world. More women should try it.

Janine Stokes, Rugby, Warwickshire: I'm a class 2 driver. Hoping to pass my class 1 next year. The one comment I ever responded to was "have you just driven that here?" I said " no I pushed it!" I just let it all go over my head. I enjoy my job. The nights out. Long distance. Haven't done continental yet. Done a couple of convoys with colleagues. It's not just a job, it's a way of life. And I'm not butch or masculine. I'm just the average woman who has followed a dream from childhood. Most male drivers I've come across have treated me with respect. As I do them. The ones that have an issue, I just carryon about my business.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.