Women account for a fraction of fleet employees. You should be worried.
Today’s fleets have a problem with women. To be precise, the problem is a lack of women. While representing 48% of Canada’s labour pool, they account for just 3% of truck drivers, mechanics and cargo workers. Things are only marginally different in office environments, where a mere 11% of managers and 18% of dispatchers are female.
An underrepresented demographic group this large is particularly troubling in the context of an intensifying driver shortage. The Conference Board of Canada expects for-hire fleets will need as many as 33,000 new truck drivers by 2020. The requirements of private fleets pile on top of that. The limited number of women in the trucking industry has certainly not been lost on those who work within it.
Lorraine Crawford, for one, never expected to follow a career in trucking. Her college education was to become a law clerk. But career paths take unexpected turns. A job in Tim Hortons’ customer service department led to an opportunity in the transportation department, and only then did she think about one thing which set her apart. “I was the only girl there,” Crawford says of her early days in the distribution centre. Every co-worker, and every truck driver that she dealt with, was a man.
Things have changed over her 16-year career. The private fleet has steadily hired more women. It has even held several focus groups with female drivers to learn about steps that would help recruit more of their peers.
Angela Splinter, the CEO of Trucking HR Canada, had a similar experience when she took the helm of the organization which develops and promotes the trucking industry’s best practices in human resources and training. “I have to admit, the first meeting I went to, I quickly realized I was one of the few women in the room,” she says. But Splinter also experienced such situations when working in the mining and electricity sectors. “I don’t look at it as a barrier for me.”
Splinter even rejects the idea that fleets have “failed” to recruit women. Existing recruiting methods met the labour needs of the past, she says. But there’s no question that demands on the labour pool are shifting. In addition to the intensifying driver shortage, there is increasing competition from other industries in the race for skilled workers.
“It’s not just a women’s issue,” she stresses. It isn’t even a question of employment equity audits or hiring quotas. An industry which struggles to find qualified workers simply can’t afford to overlook half of the nation’s available workforce.
It’s why Trucking HR Canada is looking to tackle some of the barriers. It has adopted a three-year action plan to identify issues in recruiting and retaining female employees. One of the first steps included organizing the Women with Drive Leadership Summit in Toronto, which recently showcased everything from mentorship opportunities to hiring practices and insights from women already in the industry.
There are further plans for research into compensation, formal mentorship programs to help women learn from each other, and resource materials to help fleets create more-inclusive working environments.
Women surveyed by the organization identified mentorships as one of the Top 3 things that employers could provide when looking to recruit and retain more female employees. To put this into perspective, the only two things which ranked higher were treating all employees equally and offering more flexible work hours. But just three of the surveyed male managers identified female mentors and role models as something that would make the industry more appealing for women. This doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree with mentoring, but it clearly wasn’t on their radar as an effective strategy.
For its part, the federal government has come forward with $421,720 in funding to develop mentorship programs for the industry’s women and build a formal business case to promote the hiring of other underrepresented demographic groups. “It’s about championing, and about having someone in your own industry who understands your career path from beginning to end. If you don’t have an advocate at the table with you, talking about what you are qualified for, it’s all the more challenging,” said Dr. Kellie Leitch, minister of labour and minister of status of women, when speaking about mentoring during Women with Drive.
“Mentoring is a proven retention initiative,” Splinter says. It has certainly been an important part of her personal career growth. “I’ve been very fortunate to have leaders to look up to. It helped me learn the ropes ... Now I’m at a different point in my career where I see myself being a mentor.”
The mentors can be men, too. “It’s about taking the time to have those conversations with people,making the time and listening to them,” she says. “It’s really about building confidence.”
Still, not every male member of the industry has welcomed their female cohorts.
Brenda Blanchard, who now manages Vitalaire Canada’s private fleet, remembers the reception she received at industry trade shows while working as a fleet buyer several years ago. Existing clients treated her with respect. But whenever she ventured into a booth with a group of male counterparts, their questions were always addressed first. “You weren’t afforded the importance of your job,” she says. “You didn’t get much of an audience.”
She remembers one business trip in particular when she had to deal with a blatantly sexist sales representative. “I was there to be pretty, and I was there to take his sexual undertones,” she says of the experience.
Crawford insists that gender was never a barrier in her own career path as she moved from customer service into dispatching and other fleet roles. Today she is a commercial fleet and compliance specialist.
Some of the biggest barriers that she sees can be found outside the trucking industry itself. Crawford remembers the looks from other women when they found out about her night shifts. “Whether it’s fair or not, there are folks that still think of the female as the primary caregiver,” she says. It was only with the help of a supportive family that she was able to raise three children while following her own career path. That reality could offer private fleets an advantage over for-hire counterparts, she says. Most of TDL’s (her private fleet’s) drivers are home every night. The trucks are associated with a brand that women recognize. “And every stop is a Tim Hortons,” she says. “So safety isn’t an issue.”
The industry’s broader image may be a bigger barrier to overcome.
Crawford sees one challenge in the recruiting material used by fleets. Ads and other promotional materials are filled with pictures of men. Rarely are there any women drivers. When they are in the picture, it is often as part of a team-driving couple.
Blanchard wonders whether some women find commercial trucks to be intimidating – or if they question whether they have the strength to perform physically demanding tasks. The gender bias isn’t as pronounced in fleets with light and medium vehicles, she observes. Why are those operations different? She can only guess.
It all leads back to finding the tools of change.
Trucking HR Canada’s project is looking to identify best practices among fleets that are already increasing the share of women in their workforces, and even exploring practices in other industries that could be replicated in a fleet, Splinter says. Admittedly, there are some limits to what will shift in three years. “But we want to make sure we’re moving forward with some very practical solutions ... sooner rather than later.”
In the meantime, Crawford is already experiencing one significant change in her own workplace. Her newest boss is also a woman. “It’s something I look forward to,” she says. They may share similar workplace experiences and mindsets. But, at the end of the day, one factor will be more important than any other.
“Good leadership,” she says, “is just good leadership.”
Adds Blanchard: “It’s not a man’s world anymore.”