If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it so we can fix it.
at the wheel
These women have overcome outdated sexist attitudes in the industry to rise to the top of their chosen professions
Words: Laura Hailstone / Images: Art-image
With more than a century of industry experience between them, these eight ladies have successfully risen through the ranks in their chosen disciplines within transport and remain passionate and dedicated to the industry.
But what challenges have they faced along the way? Has their gender ever been a problem in what is historically a male-dominated industry?
Yodel driver Linda Ferguson has clocked up 23 years in the industry, and last month won the Everywoman in Transport & Logistics Driver of the Year award. Currently based at Yodel’s Carlisle depot, she is the only female out of 30 drivers, while in 1989 and working for Securicor Express Parcels in Basingstoke, she was the lone female among 50 male drivers.
“I’ve only ever had one sexist comment and it was not long after I’d started,” says Ferguson. “I was delivering a parcel that was about 50kg – my own body weight – and it was also very wide. I went in to ask for a hand, and the chap was 6ft 5in and weighed about 18 stone. He said: ‘If you want a man’s job, do it yourself’. To which I replied: ‘If I was your size I wouldn’t have a problem.’ He did lift the parcel off for me but it nearly broke his back, which delighted me greatly,” laughs Ferguson.
VOSA test station manager Karen Smith, currently based at Chadderton, started out as an ofice casual at VOSA’s Bredbury test station before enrolling on VOSA’s apprenticeship scheme. She’s worked her way up the ranks, with stints as a tester, an inspector, and a station technical oficer .
“It’s taken 10 to 12 years to get here – it was hard work but it’s been worth it,” says Smith. However, she admits that in the early days, a lot of men she encountered in the role didn’t take her seriously.
“I’ve worked at test stations up and down the country, and there have been a couple of men who have made comments like: ‘A woman’s place is behind the sink.’ Also, some of the drivers that come into the test station will be funny and say: ‘I’m not having a woman test my vehicle,’ to which I say: ‘Well, don’t get your vehicle tested then!’ “It’s not so much now, and I do stand my corner, but I’d say I have had to work harder to prove that I can do the job just as well as the men,” she adds.
It’s not just being female that can be an obstacle – age can be one too. Lucy Wood, transport lawyer at Rothera Dowson, says the reaction she gets when she irst greets male clients is all too obvious.
“Because I’m younger they think I’m my colleague’s secretary rather than a transport lawyer myself. I have also been referred to as ‘that blonde girl’. You can see the shock on their faces when they realise. You know you have to be extra conident and prove your knowledge.” Refreshingly, Sally Thornley, general manager of compliance information services at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), has had the opposite experience.
“My irst technical role was in the FTA advice centre on the advice line, and I had practiced what I was going to say when a caller said: ‘Oh, can you put me through to a bloke love?’ But I was there for two-and-a-half years and nobody ever questioned my gender. To me, that showed me my own prejudice.” Karen Crispe, MD of Tachodisc, has a slightly different experience to share. “Most of my sales team are male and they’re tall males, while I’m fairly small. If I ever go to client meetings with one of them, people naturally assume they are in charge. I think its the height thing as well as the fact that I’m female. It’s the way our brains are wired – female and small; can’t be the boss.” Jayne Lewis, MD of Lewis Light Commercials, has encountered similar preconceptions. “I’ve had customers on the phone ask if ‘the boss is there’ and I tell them “I’m the boss” and they say: ‘No, but is he there?’ “But eventually they realise you do know what you’re talking about. And to be fair, often with a lot of transport irms, the main boss is 60 plus, and they just aren’t used to seeing women in the industry. The newer generation will ind it easier to accept.” Vanessa Perry, MD of Pauline Edwards Transport, has always had a female transport role model in her mum, who started out working for TNT, then ran a local transport business, before going it alone to set up Pauline Edwards.
“When she set up the business, I joined her after a month and we ran it from the back bedroom initially. TNT was our irst customer,” says Perry proudly.
Although today Pauline Edwards still only has a small leet – one artic, a couple of trailers and several vans – the company subcontracts the majority of its work, which includes imports and exports. “We moved premises last year and now have 45,000ft2 of warehousing. We had to diversify as the transport work petered down,” explains Perry.
Our generous host for the day, Andrea Thompson, MD of Leyland Trucks, who
▲ Karen Smith from VOSA
allowed CM to commandeer the Leyland boardroom for the debate, has also experienced surprise when people realise she’s a female MD. “I don’t get it on the shop loor, but some of the dealers or customers have been surprised to see a female MD at Leyland,” she says.
Thompson has been at the helm of the truck manufacturer for two-and-a-half years. Prior to that, she had spent a few years on the operations side.
“I think it helps if you get stuck in and get your hands dirty; it’s like you’ve earned your stripes,” she says.
Crispe agrees: “I’ve worked my way up through Tachodisc, so I’ve earned the respect as I’ve gone. If I’d have just come straight in as MD, I’m not so sure I’d have the same respect from my colleagues.” Unfortunately, most of the women agree that as a female in a male-heavy environment you do still have to work that little bit harder to prove yourself, although CM thinks any male MD would still have to prove his worth if he came straight into a role, rather than progressing up through the ranks.
Smith tells the group she oftens answers technical questions from operators over the phone and they then ask to speak to someone else – a man. “I’ve answered their query correctly, yet it’s obviously not good enough.” This anecdote provokes the group to discuss how the next generation will be more open to women working in men’s roles and vice-versa.
“It depends on how people have been brought up,” says Crispe. “We can’t expect people who have the belief that women don’t know what they’re talking about to suddenly change overnight. It has to be evolutionary. It’s going to change as time goes on and the more we can keep doing what we do well, then over time it will get better.” Thornley says that it’s deinitely a cultural change that’s required. “It’s also about getting people to see the beneit of having a diverse workforce and a wider pool of people to choose your workforce from.” All participants agree that while it’s great to talk about attracting more women into road transport, the real issue is that the industry isn’t viewed as an attractive option to people from all walks of life.
“It’s dirty, it’s smelly, and nobody wants anything to do with it in general,” says Leyland’s Thompson.
Thornley adds that a lot of people fall into transport rather than choosing to be in it, but once they experience it, they “tend to end up really enjoying it”.
“The surprise seems to be how sophisticated the transport industry is,” says Thornley. “They think it’s just a big bloke with a truck and don’t really understand about the supply chain. They don’t realise how the shelves get illed, they take it for granted.” Crispe agrees: “It’s not until you step into the industry that you gain respect for how professional and also how complex an industry it is. The legislation and compliance side alone is enough to make your head spin. But, if you’re not in the industry, you
▲ Sally Thornley of the FTA
do tend to have a stereotypical view of haulage and truck drivers.” Crispe feels that if we can raise the proile of the industry and present a more professional image, women will naturally follow.
Back to school
Lewis says the awareness has got to start at schools. “When I was at school, the transport industry was never lagged up as a career option. All of the females I know in transport have come into it through family.” A quick show of hands around the room reveals that more than half the participants came into the industry through family connections.
Leyland’s Thompson agrees that awareness has to start at school level. “It’s not until the bad weather hit this winter that even I appreciated just how reliant we are on the road transport industry. Everything stops, and we can’t build trucks because we don’t have the right parts and we can’t buy bread because there’s none on the shelves.
“I think we need to get the message across to the wider audience and people coming up through the schools that if you want to eat tonight, then that truck has got to get through and make its delivery.” She adds: “The public doesn’t appreciate the impact the transport sector has on the economy and on lives –and that’s a pretty powerful message that we need to get out there.” This strikes a chord with Crispe. “You’re right, there’s probably nothing in this room that hasn’t been on the back of a wagon at some point, and yet when people are stuck behind trucks on the motorway, they get a bad reputation.
“But how do you get Joe Public, who’s sat eating his cornlakes, to realise that those cornlakes came through a whole supply chain before landing on his table?” she muses.
Thornley highlights the work the FTA’s Love Logistics campaign is doing to make people aware of the logistics industry.
“We’ve just developed a Love Logistics toolkit that transport companies, schools and universities can use to promote a positive message of logistics and how it plays a part in our everyday lives.”
The toolkit contains short videos highlighting different aspects of the sector, and key information for schools and universities on promoting logistics as a career (see box for more on Love Logistics).
Transport lawyer Wood agrees that the message needs to be pushed at schools more: “You don’t even realise the transport and logistics industry is an option, so you don’t give it a second thought at school. I was supposed to specialise in wills and probate law, but ended up choosing transport after getting a taste for it during my training. I liked the buzz of a public inquiry, and now I too am a lorry spotter on the motorway!” VOSA’s Smith says that a couple of years ago she was invited to talk to a local school about her job and promote the transport industry to the children. “We need more things like that to promote it to young people.” According to Thompson, the government is organising a series of open days in July to promote the automotive sector to school children.
▲ Karen Crispe of Tacho
“It’s a start and we deinitely need to support these open days, but I think the road transport sector tends to get lost in among automotive. We need to put our spin on it and explain that we’re different to the car guys.” Leyland Trucks does open its doors to schools for factory tours, but Thompson says its hard to attract them. “We’d like to do more tours, but part of the issue is the teachers. They don’t consider truck manufacturing when they plan ield trips, so we have to push it ourselves. And once the kids get here, they love it. They see technology, lean manufacturing, engineering – it’s more than just a truck and a spanner.” Crispe agrees: “The technology in our industry is immense now.”
Despite facing the odd sexist comment or feeling they’ve had to work harder than their male counterparts, CM gets the feeling none of these eight ladies would switch careers for any amount of money.
“I’m very passionate about what I do, and in the transport industry I come across people who are equally passionate. I’ve not found that anywhere else,” says Crispe.
Thornley adds: “Our industry’s main focus is about getting things done. If you like to feel that you’ve made something happen, then it’s very practical from that point of view. That’s certainly why I enjoy doing what I do.” Lewis agrees it is a very satisfying job. “It’s not just nine to ive, and you actually see a result at the end of it – food on shelves.” Wood points out that depending on what area you go into, there is also scope to make a “decent living in transport”.
Thornley sums it up best: “Other industries still lag behind in terms of giving women the opportunity to do traditionally male roles, so even though we’ve all had some challenging experiences, at least we’ve had the chance to tell the tale.” ■