Opportunities open up for women truckers, but their numbers remain small

Cania Eubanks, 32, of Chicago, was the only female student out of a class of 20 in truck driving school. (Courtesy of Cania Eubanks)
Cania Eubanks, 32, of Chicago, was the only female student out of a class of 20 in truck driving school. (Courtesy of Cania Eubanks)

By Shen Lu

If you ask Cania Eubanks, 32, what it’s like to be one of the few female truck drivers on the road, she doesn’t mince words: “It is a dirty man’s job.”

But Eubanks, who lives on Chicago’s South Side when she’s not driving, has adapted.

“I’ve found my own world in it. It’s great,” she says.

Attracted by the financial independence and personal freedom of being a trucker, women are smashing stereotypes and establishing fulfilling careers on the open road. But their numbers remain relatively small, despite the need for more drivers amid a national shortage and more acceptance from potential employers.

Women made up just 6 percent of the 3.5 million sales workers and truck drivers employed in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a scant 1.1 percentage-point increase compared with 2008.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes the occupation — along with dozens of other skill-based jobs such as roofers and carpenters — as nontraditional for women.

Life on the road

Eubanks became an over-the-road truck driver, meaning she drives long distances, last year. Before that, she worked for about10 years for the federal government doing background checks and fingerprinting. She relishes the freedom of being a driver.

“I’m in complete control of what I do, of how I make my money,” she said.

Cania Eubanks typically drives 11 hours out of a 14-hour work day. "I’m a straight driver; I do not stop." (Shen Lu/MEDILL)
Cania Eubanks typically drives 11 hours out of a 14-hour work day. “I’m a straight driver; I do not stop.” (Shen Lu/MEDILL)

Eubanks drives Midwestern regional routes for Phoenix-based Swift Transportation Company. She is often on the road for four to six weeks at a time. She makes about $5,500 to $6,000 a month, less than what she used to earn working for the government, but she has no regrets. Switching careers was the best decision she has made, she said.

The only trade-off is home life. The mother of two daughters, a 7-year-old and a 1-year-old, said she hates to be away from family, but “life has to go on.”

Her husband quit his job to support her career. With assistance from her mother, sister and brother, they make things work.

“It’s just I’m not physically at home with my kids every night,” she said. “I do video chat with them daily, twice, three times a day, and I am so financially responsible for them.”

Carol Nixon, 47, has been a driver since 1990. (Courtesy of Carol Nixon)
Carol Nixon at work. (courtesy of Carol Nixon)

Carol Nixon, 47, of St. James, Mo., has been on the road since 1990. Over the past five years, she has worked as an over-the-road driver for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Nixon also cherishes the financial independence she has had since age 20, when she became a driver. She raised and financially supported her now-30-year-old daughter while working as a driver. And the plus is she gets paid to see places across the country, she said.

Typically, Nixon is on the road for six days and then rests for eight days. She works less than five months a year, taking home $65,000.

Her husband is also a driver, but he returns home every day.

“There is no way he can do what I can do,” she said. “I’ve never hesitated to get in a car to go somewhere for an adventure.”

Truck drivers get paid by mileage and stops, depending on the distance covered. The median annual pay for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in 2015 was $40,260, 11 percent higher than an average person’s annual income, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s one career where women may not be treated equally but are paid equally,” Nixon said.

Stigma and sexism

Though it’s a good-paying job, truck driving still comes with stigma and, for women, gender stereotyping that amounts to sexism. Male drivers simply don’t see their female counterparts as equal.

“You don’t look like a driver,” is what Nixon often gets. “I ask what a driver is supposed to look like,” Nixon said. “They’d say, ‘I don’t know. Not like you.’” Nixon said she then ends the argument with a “thank you.”

Eubanks adopts a tit-for-tat approach when male truckers taunt her with “trash” talk.

“The bigger their trash talk is, the bigger my trash talk gets,” Eubanks said. “Once they realize that I am just as big of a trash talker as them, they usually shut up.”

What frustrates her more is the assumption that she expects special treatment as a woman.

“When I came into this industry, I came in with a competitive attitude, that I can do what you can do,” Eubanks said.

For the most part, Eubanks and Nixon keep their heads down, focus on being good drivers and ignore the daily sexist comments.

“I don’t have those issues that a lot of drivers complain [about],” Eubanks said. “I am presentable. I keep myself clean. I do what I’m supposed to do.”

Eventually, the women say, they win the respect from the male drivers by getting the work done well and independently. Some men, Eubanks said, find women attractive for being competent in what they do.

However, Eubanks was told that many managers don’t work with women drivers, who bear a reputation of being difficult and hard to manage.

Women tend to feel like they represent their gender group in any male-dominated business, said Robert Nelson, a sociology and law professor at Northwestern University who studies gender and economics, and constantly worry about the messages conveyed through their appearances and behaviors.

Subtle, yet crude, sexual harassment often occurs, Nelson said.

“We should not underestimate that,” he added. “In situations where women are a very small minority, whom do they turn to? A lot of the behavior of women in this context would probably be defensive.”

Why women?

Carriers over the past few years have been trying to recruit more female drivers and create a more friendly working environment for them. Some even have programs to help women succeed within the company.

“Ten years ago you never saw that,” Ellen Voie, president of Women In Trucking Association. “Ten years ago they’d say, ‘We don’t care if they are male or female.’ Now carriers are saying, ‘Wow, we want more female drivers because they actually are an asset.’”

Women are “perfect candidates” to drive trucks, a stressful job that demands much patience and critical thinking, said Cody Edwards, Eubanks’ driver manager at Swift. Edwards works with three female drivers on a daily basis but is in contact with many more. He said he is delighted to see more of them coming into the industry, albeit at a slow pace.

The demand for female drivers comes at a time when the U.S. is facing a serious trucker shortage. The trucking industry faces an immediate shortfall of 200,000, according to FTR, a freight transportation forecasting intelligence company, and the situation isn’t projected to get better.

The United States has long faced a truck driver shortfall. (Shen Lu/MEDILL)

John Starks, chief operating officer at FTR, said the improving economy demands more truckers to haul goods, but the current labor force — dominated by white men in their 50s — is getting old and leaving the industry. At the same time, young men don’t seem to be interested in taking over the road. This hurts the economy, Starks said.

“They need to find qualified drivers,” Starks said. “If they limit themselves to a quarter of the labor force, it’s going to be a struggle.”

Further, closing the gender gap is cost-effective for employers, Nelson said.

“Discrimination is costly,” Nelson said. “If you can tap into a larger pool of workers, then the pressure on wages and labor costs will not be as high.”

Greater female labor force participation leads to higher economic growth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go into every sector, said Stephan Klasen, professor of development economics at the University of Göttingen.

Women also have proven to be safe drivers. Both Nixon and Eubanks take pride in the fact that they have better driving records and habits than many of their male counterparts.

Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that disproportionately more male truckers than female die each year in vehicle crashes. Men typically drive more miles than women and more often engage in risky driving practices, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“If they flip me off, it’s okay with me,” Nixon describes how easily male drivers get mad at her when she drives at the speed limit. “I’m not going to do something dangerous and crazy because I want to get home to be with my family and I want them to get home to be with their family, too.”

Woman power

Eubanks is 5 feet 4 inches tall. Her trailer sits at 13 feet 6 inches high. Nixon is at 5 feet 6 inches, and her empty tractor and trailer weigh 34,000 pounds.

Patience — a huge amount of it — critical thinking and a good attitude weigh much more than physical strength in a job that is essentially mentally fatiguing, people in the industry say.

“Driving is a lot of common sense, and there are a lot of unpredictable factors in it, from timing, time consuming to multitasking,” Eubanks said. “It’s not just about driving and listening to the radio.”

Edwards calls Eubanks a “superstar.” She is more trusted than many of his experienced male drivers, and would be more likely to get assigned to high-priority loads than others, even as a relative newbie to the job, Edwards said.

Eubanks and Nixon take pride in being who they are.

Nixon always wears makeup and keeps her hair long. Eubanks gets periodic manicures and pedicures. She decorates her truck and trailer with everything pink. She takes issue with pink tools not being available for female drivers at truck stops.

Cania Eubanks’ pink collection in her truck and trailer. (courtesy of Cania Eubanks)

Keeping themselves and their trucks clean is extremely important to Nixon and Eubanks as they try to shed the “nasty, dirty” truck driver image.

Equal future?

The overall working environment for female truckers has improved over the years, Voie said. Truck stops are now selling gloves that fit women’s hands — though not pink. Hair driers are available for women in some shower rooms at truck stops, and locks have been put on the doors for female drivers’ privacy.

Eubanks and Nixon hope to see more women on the road. Eubanks is training female students. She has mentored four over the past year. Her message to them?

“We can do it and we can do it better,” Eubanks said. “Get out here and don’t be afraid to get dirty a little bit, because at the end of the night, when you take your shower, that dirt flows right off of your body.”

A little more gender diversity in this business is good for all, Nixon said.

“If other women see women succeed in this industry, they are more likely to want to join the industry,” Edwards said. “So i think it’s good for women, and it’s good for the industry as well.”

Nelson said he doesn’t see a dramatic transformation of gender diversity in the truck driving business, although small increases will occur as a market process — for example as a response to the driver shortage.

“The stereotyping and discrimination are not going to go away, especially in a field like trucking where the management and coworkers are just not going to be very sympathetic,” Nelson lamented.

Photo at top: Cania Eubanks poses by her truck. (courtesy of Cania Eubanks)