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Former trucker recalls life on the road as a woman

September 24, 2018

ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) — When Valerie Ashley landed a job driving in construction, she thought it would be a breeze. After all, she had just spent three years driving tractor-trailers across the country. She had the experience, the skills and the dedication.

But when it came time for her boss to assign jobs, he put her on a dump truck instead.

“He said, ‘No woman is getting in one of my trailers,’” Ashley, 61, of West Greenwich, Rhode Island, recalled. “It was very different back then. It didn’t matter if you worked just as hard as a guy.”

Today, a statement like that would not fly. But it was the 1990s, and Ashley was a single mother in need of work.

“I was grateful for the job,” she said. “I remember the union steward was a cool guy. He would just say, ‘You’re doing good, ignore what’s being said.’”

And that’s what Ashley did. She ignored the “What’s a girl doing in the truck?” and “She belongs at home taking care of the kids” comments, and even the occasional, “She’s taking food off my table.”

“That’s the kind of comments you’d get, way back in the ’90s,” she said. “When equal opportunity came, more and more women started driving trucks and I think at that point, it pretty much became a job that anyone could do.”

However sexist her boss and co-workers were at her construction job, the men she worked with on the road were always respectful, she said. In fact, Ashley never experienced sexism on the road, with truckers or anyone else. The only bad experiences she had was working in construction.

“I got more grief driving construction than I ever did as a road driver,” she said.

Desiree Woods, president of the REAL Women in Trucking organization, also believes being on the road is one of the safer situations for women in the trucking industry. The real danger, she said, lies in the training courses.

“In the training fleets, it’s a different environment,” she said. “They don’t train sexual harassment or discrimination or any kind of workplace rights or conduct, even simple conduct on how you’re supposed to behave.”

New recruits are put on trucks with trainers they don’t know well, and are stuck for weeks in close quarters without any support from the company, she said. And if a trainee does report issues with their driver, the company usually encourages them to confront the driver head on.

“When you don’t have a support system around you and no escape route it’s a bad idea to confront them,” she said. “Then the driver is trapped with a person who rejected them. It gets violent and hostile and potentially very dangerous.”

Woods said her organization is working to set up networks on social media to support young women just entering the industry. Once the young women make it through their first year, they can make a great living.

“Once you get through the first year and you know what you’re doing and get your own truck, this is a great job,” she said. “It’s a liberating job, especially for women.”

Today, women make up just 7.89 percent of the trucking industry’s workforce, according to the National Transportation Institute. And those numbers were even more abysmal back in the ’90s, when Ashley was on the road.

When she was a child, her father had been an engineer working on bridges and highways in Southeastern Massachusetts. She grew up around trucks and construction, and was curious to see what it’d be like to drive them herself. She first started trucking in 1990, at 33 years old, driving across country for weeks at a time.

While most truckers at the time worked in teams, she worked alone, driving up to 30 hours nonstop, with only a one-hour nap to keep her going. She slept in big dirt parking lots in her truck, where prostitutes would often knock on the door, expecting a man and possible customer.

“I didn’t like being alone at a truck stop at night,” she said. “It was always a little unsettling. But I never had any issues.”

Ashley maintained a fairly routine schedule of driving coast to coast every three weeks. Many other drivers stayed on similar schedules, meaning Ashley would run into the same group of truckers, all men, during her trips.

“We kept each other company and kept each other awake,” she said. “They treated me with a lot of respect.”

Ashley wasn’t always on her own, though. Sometimes she brought her kids along, to places like Florida and Texas. Another time she brought her father along to celebrate his 60th birthday with a road trip. They ended up breaking down on the side of the road, and while Ashley was in the back to get her toolbox, another trucker pulled over and approached her father, asking if he needed any help.

″‘Don’t look at me,’” she recalled her father saying. ”‘She’s the truck driver.’”

“The guy got a real kick out of it,” she added.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2I9Si1S

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Information from: The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle, http://www.thesunchronicle.com

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