Going the extra mile
The Women In Trucking Association is an all-inclusive, trailblazing organisation working to improve gender diversity in the trucking industry
Written by: Dani Redd
“I was one of the lucky people whose mom told me I could do anything I wanted, and there were no “girl” careers,” explains Ellen Voie, Founder & CEO of the Women In Trucking Association.
In 1972, Title IX of the Federal Civil Rights Act was adopted in America – it stated that no student in a federal education programme could be prohibited from learning an activity based on their sex. Until it was in place, girls studied home economics and boys took shop class. But in 1975, encouraged by her mother, Voie joined shop class, learning woodworking, welding, drafting and auto mechanics.
“Shop class was so much fun, and my instructor insisted I was the best welder he’d ever had! I loved the auto mechanics lessons, and when I wanted to use the family car, I disconnected the distributor cap so my older brother couldn’t get it started! These were more valuable to me than cooking, baking or cleaning!” Voie explains.
In 1978, she was hired at a steel fabricating plant in central Wisconsin and worked in the drafting department, designing material handling equipment, such as steel pallets, bins, and racking. A year later, her employers invited her to transfer into the Traffic Department. Upon earning a diploma in Traffic and Transportation Management in 1980 from LaSalle Extension University, Voie was then promoted to the role of Traffic Manager.
She was responsible for managing three plants creating parts such as material handling and jacks, for shipping out finished products and managing the company’s fleet of three trucks and their drivers.
“I ended up marrying a professional driver, and we started our own trucking company,” Voie says. “I also did freelance work as a transportation consultant while I ran our small carrier, raised two children and attended college to earn my bachelor’s and then master’s degree in communication. I was offered numerous writing opportunities in various magazines. My monthly columns were about family life in the trucking industry.
“I completed my Master’s Thesis on ‘The Complex Identities of Women Married to Professional Drivers.’ I later published a book filled with some of my most popular articles called, ‘Marriage In the Long Run’.”
Two decades later, her marriage ended and she was hired as the Executive Director of Trucker Buddy International, a unique not-for-profit in which long distance truckers become pen-pals to a class of school children, sending them postcards and letters from the places they visit across the country.
After six years in the position, she was recruited by Schneider National to lead their retention efforts, with a remit to initiate corporate level programmes designed to attract and retain non-traditional groups, such as women.
“At the time, I was completing my pilot’s license, and I belonged to an organisation for female pilots. It struck me that there wasn’t a similar group for women in the trucking industry; so I started one,” she says.
And so, in 2007, she founded the Women In Trucking Association (WIT).
Support and Inclusion
In its current incarnation, WIT is a non-profit organisation with over 5,000 individual and corporate members located in 10 countries. Its mission: to encourage the employment of women in the trucking industry, promote their accomplishments, and minimise obstacles faced by women working within the trucking industry. It is the only association focused on gender diversity for both drivers and management in the trucking industry, so has little competition.
“Our membership consists of anyone who believes in our mission. To that point, nearly anyone can join the association. However, we want to attract people who believe in the benefits of gender diversity,” the CEO explains.
This includes men, who make up 17 percent of the membership.
“Women In Trucking is not an association FOR women, it’s ABOUT women and their success and support in this industry,” Voie says. “If you think about it, you don’t need to be a dog to support the humane society, do you? The Arbor Day Foundation doesn’t require that you’re a tree to fund their efforts.”
Voie is often asked to explain what issues women in the trucking industry face that are different to men.
“The answer is ‘none’. Every one of the concerns that our members have affects both men and women,” she says. “But there are issues that affect women more than they affect men. These are some of the concerns we are focusing our efforts on and working to alleviate.”
The first of these pertains to the image of the trucking industry as a ‘man’s world’, which puts women off from joining it.
“There may be a greater percentage of men than women responsible for moving the nation’s freight, but that doesn’t mean that women aren’t welcome. In fact, some of the most encouraging and supportive people in trucking are men!” the CEO says.
To counteract this image, WIT aims to ensure women know all about the fantastic opportunities in the industry, from driving to maintaining and managing equipment.
“Often, when I tell women about the organisation they are curious, but when I start describing the potential opportunities available to them, they tell me they aren’t “built” to drive a truck, or that they aren’t mechanically minded enough to service an engine,” Voie says.
“I tell them that they’re wrong. I tell them they can learn and they are capable and most importantly, they are needed.”
A second issue is one of safety. Voie cites a study from the US Department of Justice which found that women are three times more likely to be raped than men, three times more likely to be stalked, and twice as likely to be injured during an assault.
“This industry can’t afford to lose women because they do not feel safe in their work environment. Everyone deserves to have the security to do their job, and whether their workplace is an office, a truck or a maintenance facility, our goal is to help women overcome some of the challenges they might face in ensuring that they are safe while they are on the job,” she states.
A third issue is cleanliness of truck stops and toilet facilities, which puts women off from taking driving jobs. A final, more serious issue is that of harassment.
“Many of our female members have told us that they are often verbally accosted by an anonymous male voice when they key the mic on their CB radio,” Voie explains. “Diane, an owner operator from Canada, said that she had been called some pretty nasty things when she talked on the CB. She turns it off except for the few occasions she needs it to communicate with a fellow driver.”
Making an Impact
So what has WIT done to help women overcome these obstacles and encourage them to join the industry?
Since its first membership drive in 2007 (which attracted 500 members) it has launched a number of positive, innovative events and initiatives to encourage women into the industry. In 2009, for example, it organised the first ‘Salute to the Women Behind the Wheel,’ a group photo shoot for professional female drivers, which takes place at a larger trucking event. Six years later it launched its own trucking event and expo, Accelerate!, devoted entirely to redressing the gender imbalance in the trucking industry.
In 2010, it created the Women In Trucking Scholarship Foundation. In the same year it established the first annual Influential Women In Trucking Award, set up to recognise women in the trucking industry who make or influence key decisions, have a proven record of responsibility, and mentor and serve as a role model for other women. This year’s award was jointly shared with Kristy Knichel, CEO of Knichel Logistics (also featured in this edition of North America Outlook) and Jodie Teuton, Vice President, Kenworth of Louisiana/Hino of Baton Rouge and Monroe.
In 2011, the Women In Trucking industry launched Redefining the Road, a thrice-yearly publication available to its members, while 2014 saw the introduction of the weekly ‘WIT e-News’. A mentoring board was also added to the website, enabling new starters in the industry to connect to those with more professional experience.
Over the years, Voie has attended an increasing number of engagements around the world to publicise the organisation. She has even visited the White House, who in 2012 recognised WIT as “Transportation Innovator Champion of Change”. Voie herself has received many accolades, such as being named in Insights Success Magazine’s “2020’s Most Influential Women to Watch” and is known as a trailblazer in the industry.
Of course, the transport and logistics industry has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside many others. Voie admits her own career has dramatically changed and has had to learn a new way of working.
“My job was formerly about traveling all over the world to talk about how to bring more women into supply chain careers,” Voie says. “I haven’t been on a commercial flight in months, but I’ve learned to give presentations virtually, and we’re all getting more comfortable sitting in front of our computers instead of in front of a crowd.”
Despite the pandemic, the organisation has continued to work towards its goal of improving gender diversity within the trucking industry. It is in the process of rolling out a D&I Index, a novel diversity and inclusion programme that will promote and share what different carriers are doing to support and expand the needs of the evolving trucking workforce. In doing so, it will help identify and promote best practice, as well as encouraging creativity and innovation.
It also launched its Driver Ambassador Program in February, to help promote career opportunities within the trucking industry and increase membership for the organisation.
Since the launch the official WIT Driver Ambassador Kellylynn McLaughlin has been involved in media interviews and speaking engagements. But since COVID-19 halted the latter, she began to engage with members through a daily video series on social media, and via writing blogs for the WIT association.
WIT is now embarking on the next phase of its programme, which will involve McLaughin travelling the country in a WIT-branded trailer. Its interior functions as an educational unit, introducing viewers to the career of professional truck driving and featuring success stories of women drivers.
“It’s going to be a powerful and very visible symbol of what women have to offer the freight industry. I will be so proud to haul it,” McLaughlin says.
Despite the difficulties of this year, WIT is going from strength to strength as it increases its reach and engagement. Alongside its digital communications it is also working on creating chapters for its increasing number of members to connect on a local or regional level.
“I started in 2007 with a great team who shared my passion, and we put together a fantastic staff, board and support group. Here we are, 13 years later, with a success story I could never have imagined,” Voie concludes.