American women truck drivers: a user expertise on vehicle design

An interview of Ellen Voie and Dr. Jeanette Kersten


Ellen (left) and Jeanette presenting the study.

 This interview testifies a link between women trucks drivers in America and public transport passengers in Europe. Such unexpected connexion is grounded by the fact that both are captive users of vehicles about which they have little voice in design and purchase choice, though they have to use them everyday. More precisely, this article describes a step that final users can do in order to get more decision-making power back towards the industry that produces the vehicles they use, so as to get a better consideration of their needs concerned by these vehicles. Ellen Voie, founder of Women in Trucking association, worked in the American trucking industry, where she involved to make this industry more gender-balanced and more welcoming for women in all job positions. Dr. Jeanette Kersten teaches organizational change, human resources, and management at University of Wiscounsin-Stout, Menomonie, Wisconsin, focusing on the change management processes in the industry.


What is this study about women truck drivers, that you made with your management students at Wiscounsin-Stout University?

Jeanette : «This is a study we presented to the "Women Issues in Transportation" (WIIT) exhibition, in April 2014 in Paris. This research study began with graduate students in partnership with WIT during the Spring semester 2012 as an applied research project for a graduate course at the University of Wisconins The study consisted of a surveyto women truck drivers, about whether or not they felt that the trucks they were driving, and particularly thetruck cabs, were designed to fully adapt to their needs. A 33 question survey wassent to the members of Women in Trucking, a professional association of women that are truck drivers, resulting in an 18% response rate. Very practically, these conclusions indicated that placement, size and adjustability of at least one or two items in the cabin were not adjustable and did not meet drivers needs. For example, seat adjustability, adjustable steering wheels or easy access to engine compartments (see a presentation of the study, and the study itself). In a broader perspective, this study is a practical example of how it is possible to create change in vehicle design, when you are just a final user with almost no power over the automotive industry or vehicle purchasing choice, which is generally the situation of truck drivers as well as public transport passengers.»


Can we say «Women's bodies, men's trucks»?

Barbara behind wheel

Ellen: «Truck driving is a job where you drive long days, often 14-hour working days. Unfortunately, trucks are not yet fully adapted to the body of all users, and particularly women. You must know that some of them have to place blocks or cushions under t
heir shoes, so as to be comfortable enough for driving! An industry should not leave the main users of their vehicles in this situation! This is shocking, when we consider the final users, but it is unfortunately very typical of situations where the purchaser of a product (as the truck company) is not the final user (the truck drivers themselves). However, adapting to the users will be important for the trucking industry, because it will ensure that they keep enough candidates for a job sector that may lack workforce in the near future. Women are today only 5% of the truck driving population in the USA, so manufacturers may be reluctant today to make efforts for such a little group. But because of the threatening drivers shortage, the truck industry is starting to to adapt so as to have more women driver candidates. 

The federal law Americans with Disabilities Act, through the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and specifictate laws are also quite constraining in obliging stakeholders to accomodate individuals with disabilities which is required by federal and state laws. Penalites result in significant fines. Therefore industries with 15 or more employees must comply with the requirements under federal law. In addition, states may require employers with less than 15 employees to comply based on state laws. Industries have been obliged to comply, and in doing so, they were motivated to take into account findings such as those we brought with our study. »


What is the role of change management in this initiative?

Robin Grapa.resizedJeanette: « This study is a priliminary step in a larger process of change management. It proves the benefits of a method, consisting in data collection, analysis, and evidence based evaluation for the need for change, grounded in the point of view of the final users. These needs were probably clear to no one, not even to the drivers themselves.

As an organizational change and management professor, I place this in a wider process of needs assessment and change management. For the record, here are some of the main steps to lead such a process : designing several question sets and toolsto collect data, analyze the data, provide recommendations for change based on the data analysis, design a plan with the organizations about how to move forward with the recommendations, communicating that plan, and repeatedly communicating the planThis requires having many people or key stakeholders involved, having an action plans, with deadlines, measurements, so the success and opportunities for learning from the change can be measured over time. Leaders must be committed to the change process and improvement. This is how transformation happens. Remember this can be a long process since sustainable change takes time! This is extermely important when the change requirement is not coming from the top of the industry or from the market, but from the end users or customers (those of final users) that may be perceived as secondary importance.



Who decides for the users?

Lupe-Potter-w-flatbedEllen : « Truck drivers, public transport drivers and public transport passengers are indeed all categories of persons that use the vehicles everyday, but have little contracting power in designing and purchasing them. They are a captive public. It is the inverse of what happens for private cars, where you choose and drive your own car, and you change it if you are not satisfied with it. This situation of captivity is dramatic, because drivers and passengers use the vehicles everyday, so inadaptation has an important impact over their daily life.
Their needs are reported indirectly by other stakeholders, which are namely : the purchasers (transport operators, that have to satisfy their own customers), authorities (that set minimum requirements, often through regulation or tender specifications), the automotive industry (that want vehicle purchasers to be satisfied). User representatives may have a consultative, limited position, but their point of view is generally interpreted by someone else, and they are not always directly, institutionally represented in the decision-making process. There is here a long way to run through until we reach a satisfying user integration. Of course, we know that vehicle industries do everything they can to improve people safety and comfort, but, from the point of view of the user, there is a still difference between being cared by others, and ensuring personally that you are getting the right care. This happens particularly when users are a weak category. As a women, I regret that women are still a weak category, with only average 14 % of management staff, and 5 % of drivers. We are currently making effort for hiring more women as drivers, but we realize that the same effort should be done for transport management. If you, as a category of user, don't have enough power to decide by yourself, and you see that your needs are not met, then you must find some other way to get your point of view heard back. Such a fact-based study is a possible tool to get your voice heard. This example illustrates that it is difficult but still possible to make an industry evolve, so as to place the user as a main beneficiary. »


Is a user needs full inclusion a problem of technology costs?

Jeanette: «What we see in this case of truck cabins, is that even if industries have already the availability of a technology that would be useful for some of their users, and even if including this technology has a very little cost, sometimes they just don't use it, especially if it is not perceived as necessity, part of the compleition and/or mandatory requirement as. In our case, the key technology is adjustability and ergonomic components of the driving cabin: the cabin should have handles and grips to easily adapt to all needs of the human body, so as to improve erconomically which is not very costly.


What's in for us: the expertise of passenger organizations

Diane Kasulis thumbnail.resized

As a conclusion, how is this case useful for European public transport passengers ? This shows an interesting focus on the method that users should develop when engaging dialogue with stakeholders.  What has been observed with this study on women drivers, also apply for other people with specific needs with the vehicles : women passenger, people with physical disability, people that carry bags or that may just be tired during their day. There are of course many discussions going on for ages between users and vehicle producers about the adaptations needed in vehicles. What we point now, is that fact-based expertise is one of the keys that may determine the decision eventually taken, in this case about making supplementary arrangements to vehicle design, or not. Public transport users should develop their capacity to produce this expertise on their own, despite of the lack of resources – on the contrary : getting this expertise would be a way to compensate the current lack of ressources that afflict user organisations.


Context : the interview took place by phone on 29 May 2014, after a meeting in Paris in March 2014. All photos are (c) of Women in Trucking. 




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