April 1, 2021

The perspective of a female owner-operator


New perspectives are learned through conversations. Camaraderie can also be established through discussing similarities in upbringing and viewpoints, discovering that many daily challenges transcend gender

Trucking has historically been and continues to be a male-dominated industry, but a significant number of women have found their niche in a “man’s world.”

Commercial trucking in the 21st century attracts drivers from all walks of life; wealth creation’s only criteria are hard work and persistence. Regardless of nationality, ethnicity or gender, opportunities abound for anyone aspiring to climb aboard a big rig.

However, as diverse as the trucking landscape is, the road to success may feel staggered for many minority drivers. The industry is not without remnants of stigmas and sexism, which may partly explain why women make up only 7.8% of the 3,364,000 U.S. truck drivers on the road in 2020, according to Department of Labor data.

For some, this statistic may invoke a call-to-action response, while others may simply view it as the natural order of things — whatever the case, trucking’s ever-changing demographics make the thoughts and opinions of minority drivers increasingly an invaluable asset.

FreightWaves caught up with a female owner-operator for her perspective on trucking. For reasons of privacy, the driver, a client of Reliance Partners, requested that we refer to her simply as “Wendy” from Washington state.

In many ways, Wendy isn’t your typical trucker; she’s a mother of five children who got behind the wheel later in life. As women account for only 4% of owner-operators, Wendy’s testimonial is particularly insightful.

Wendy’s reason for taking up long-haul trucking is similar to that of most drivers: She wanted a good-paying job to support her children. While she entered the industry later in life than most typically would, Wendy was no stranger to trucking.

“Living in a mill town, I didn’t have a negative opinion of truck drivers at all, as I was familiar with log trucks. When we learned to drive [growing up], we were taught to give trucks the right-of-way,” Wendy said, adding that her first husband was a log truck driver.

Her 16 years on the road are made up of a handful of stints with motor carriers, including dry van, tanker hauling of agricultural products and fertilizers — having earned hazmat, doubles and triples endorsements. Her wide array of freight has taken her through the majority of the Lower 48, with additional trips through nine Canadian provinces on top of a few Alaskan excursions.

Years of fleet driving experience gave her the confidence to start out on her own. “Honestly, there’s no perfect-fit company out there,” Wendy said. For now, she sticks to hauling dry van trailers throughout the Pacific Northwest, hitching everything including recycled paper bales, small tractors, charcoal briquettes, beer and garbanzo beans.

Like most drivers, Wendy summarizes her fleet career as a learning period with its ups and downs. However, she feels that being a mother added an additional strain at times, as she often found it difficult to balance good scheduling and pay with the needs of raising five children.

In addition, Wendy experienced a fair share of prejudice from coworkers and other drivers. She mentioned an instance in which her engine would start first thing in the morning but every start after that may or may not happen. The shop foreman finally addressed the situation and proclaimed that it “starts just fine,” much to the frustration of Wendy, who knew that the underlying issue wasn’t being properly assessed.

“As a female, when I tell my mechanic that something’s not right, even when I can’t identify what the problem is, there’s something wrong,” Wendy said. “It’s getting better, but there’s still a stigma that drivers don’t know anything about mechanical issues, but for female drivers it’s even worse.”

Wendy speaks of the stigmatization of female incompetence in trucking as a hidden-in-plain-sight issue. In her opinion, a lot of people assume a woman in the cab is not the commodore, but perhaps the wife of the actual driver. What’s worse, she once overheard fellow truckers over the CB radio regard her performance disparagingly because she’s a woman.

“I once delivered a load of road deicer to a Department of Transportation work site. I walked in with my paperwork and handed it to the guy, who proclaimed, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to the driver,’” Wendy said. “I told him that I was his driver, to which he said, ‘You’re not going to be able to get it where I need you to put it.’

“I told him that ‘my boss wouldn’t send you a driver that couldn’t get the job done, so I’m fairly confident that I can do the job for you,’” Wendy said, explaining that the worker later apologized rather flusteredly. “There’s still a stigma out there. If you’re a female driver, well then you must be ‘this type of person’ or ‘that type of person.’ You would think in this day and age that it would go away, but it doesn’t.”

As a woman, Wendy has learned to roll with the punches and knows that not everyone in the industry harbors such prejudiced views. In fact, despite her handful of negative experiences, she insists that the trucking community is becoming a more accepting place.

“I can’t change anybody’s idea or mind about who I am and what I’m doing. I just do my job,” Wendy said.

Wendy doesn’t exactly embrace her identity as a “female truck driver,” nor is she certain that other female drivers share the same mindset. She attributes differences in day-to-day work as a main factor, explaining that the women she does come across typically run teams or are leased onto smaller companies in a more localized area.

“I think over the years, more than anything, I realized that the title of ‘truck driver’ doesn’t define you,” Wendy said. “Whether it’s me personally or anybody else, we all have our own distinct quirks, needs and whatever else. We’re just more visible [as women] because we’re all lumped together in a group.”

She continued, “Think about your friend circle; it doesn’t consist of a bunch of people that are exactly alike. Instead, they’re a bunch of people that have similar interest points, right? Unfortunately, truckers’ interest points revolve around the paycheck. But everybody has different interests after that.”

Wendy prefers traveling long distances. She states that the workload fits well with her home life.

“For me, the more control I can have over my situation, the better I am,” Wendy said. “I need to drive my 11 hours every day and be tired when it’s bedtime so that the rest of my life functions well. However, other people want to just work eight hours on and 12 hours off. There’s such a huge disparity between what people need and want and what they get.”

Wendy’s advice to motor carriers, and to the industry as a whole, is to take into consideration the personal lives of each driver, investing in ways to make their lives off the road easier.

It’s through conversations with unique individuals that new perspectives are learned. Conversely, camaraderie also can be established through similarities in upbringing and viewpoints, discovering that many of our daily challenges, in fact, transcend gender.

“Whether they’re male or female, listen to your drivers,” Wendy said. “People are going to tell you what they want and need, whether they’re able to define it in a way that translates easily to your organization or not.”

The benefits most important to Wendy have been employer-matched 401(k) contributions, adequate health care options and child care benefits.

“When I joined the tanker company earlier in my career, I was looking for a good income because I was paying child support, daycare and everything else that goes into taking care of five kids, so I really appreciated the income level that the company provided me and the work ethic that it helped me form,” Wendy said.

As an owner-operator, Wendy operates mainly within her home state of Washington as well as Oregon and Idaho, but has ventured as far as Oklahoma, Missouri and Ohio. With her children learning remotely from home, she does truck beyond the Pacific Northwest every now and then.

When asked if her children would like to follow in their mother’s footsteps, Wendy suggests that she’ll probably remain the lone trucker in the family.

“I think I’m just a mom who got diesel on her boots and decided at some point she needed to become an owner-operator,” Wendy said.