- Linda J. Pawlenty
"Because I wanted to": Language and Interrogation Surrounding Women doing "Men's
The History Channel’s docu-drama Ice Road Truckersdebuted in 2007 and ran until 2017. The first two seasons of the show followed drivers navigating the frozen waters of Canada, using these waterways as roads to move goods for the mining and oil industries. In subsequent seasons the setting moved to Alaska, where the goals of the truckers were the same but the terrain arguably more treacherous. The first two seasons of IRTfeatured only male drivers, but in season three, something interesting happened: viewers were introduced to 28-year old driver Lisa Kelly.
For several seasons Lisa was the only “woman driver” on the show; I put “woman driver” in quotes for the same reason you’ll see me quote “men’s work” in a moment. “Woman trucker (driver)” implies an un-naturalness that simply isn’t; it implies that trucker = male by default. I suppose to many it may seem like a harmless epithet, but the phrase instead works in small ways to reinforce the notion that women in trucking is inherently odd. It is one way, however small, to reify a stereotype of what types of work are appropriate for women and men, which, needless to say, does nothing to a) broaden career opportunities for women (or men in “women’s professions), b) free us of entrenched binaries, or c) make navigating harassment and discrimination for women in “men’s work” any easier.
Lisa’s status as the only female personality on IRT eventually changed (History added a few other young, conventionally attractive cast-members when needed), but I stopped following the program by season five (give or take) because I could no longer stand the formulaic hyperbole of the History Channel’s carefully crafted production of reality. However. As performative as it is, there is one particular moment from IRTthat I have not forgotten, early in the series when Lisa is asked by producer and narrator Thom Beers why she wanted to become a truck driver:
Lisa: Because I wanted to – I became a trucker because I wantedto [emphasis hers].
Beers: And as a woman working in a man’s world, she had to want it more than
Lisa: I think that what kind of fueled the spark was that I had to work so hard to get what
I wanted. (“Rookie”)
I was shocked, I was hooked, I was overjoyed with a moment of recognition: here was someone my age, who looked like me and did what I did, saying exactly what I’d been saying to everyone I encountered.
I drove a truck because I wanted to.
This rarely seems to be a satisfactory answer for people. No, I have no family in the trucking industry. No, I have no truck driving dad, uncle, grandfather. I have no legacy passed on, no family trucking business, nothing like it to grow up around. Nothing, except that I wanted to.
And I get asked some version of “what made me interested in driving a truck” all the time. All the time. Another common and heartbreaking version of this is the statement by many women that “they could never do that.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this over my career, to borrow a phrase from singer Maren Morris, I’d “basically be sittin’ on a big ass pile of dimes.”
For a long time, I thought there musthave been some defining moment, something that had indeed happened I just wasn’t remembering, something that surely must have prodded my interest and prompted the decision to go to truck driving school in 2007. I can remember being 10, 11, on family vacations in our giant gray conversion van, my brother and I waving out the windows at truckers we’d pass, trying to get a honk of the air horn or a flash of the lights. But there is too much distance between this memory and my career choice - it doesn’t explain it.
So then, what?
With complete and total lucidity, I can finally say, without racking my memory for a more interesting response, that I just wanted to. I am finally comfortable with the answer.
So why isn’t everyone else?
Why do women who do “men’s work” constantly need to justify or explain their presence? I suppose the quick answer is because “men’s work” is work traditionally done by mostly men and therefore deemed by society at-large as inappropriate or wildly weird for women. So when people see us in the field, it’s like a Bigfoot sighting or something. There’s sometimes finger pointing. A lot of staring. Questions are asked. Perhaps then the better questions are these: what are the effects of asking these questions of women working in non-traditional fields? Should we be required to share our stories, and in what way, and when?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the United States, just over 6% of truck drivers are women.
It is surprisingly difficult to find substantive research of women who do “men’s work.” We talk about the wage gap, we talk about the different ways in which women and men handle stressful jobs or emotional labor, but the lack of literature about non-traditional labor -- in either direction -- makes it seem a little like this is a thing we’ve just accepted, even now. Academic journals and Google searches alike yield little that helps elucidate the way women navigate male-dominated professions, hence the large amount of personal narrative in this blog post. However, in my latest web search I was excited to find a recent photo story published on the Insider titled “Stunning photos of women doing ‘men’s work’ shatter gender stereotypes.” The lead photo is of a haul truck driver, a woman, profiled against the oversized tires of the oversized machines employed in the mining industry she works in. Scrolling through the story, one finds photos of a firefighter, hog farmer, butcher, lobster fisher, and more: all women. There’s little context for the photos, only a short caption about the subjects. There is also equal time given to quotes from photographer Chris Crisman about his goals for the series, and a trip to his website reveals more photos of what he calls, admirably inverting the stereotype, “women’s work.”
As the title of the article claims, the photos are indeed stunning. I’m no photographer, but the composition, the lighting, the texture of the images: they’re beautiful, and the images look more like paintings than photos. But author Talia Lakrit’s description of Crisman’s work as “stunning” seems to carry more meaning. I can’t help but feel, somewhere inside myself, that the article’s author implies the very content of the images is stunning -- or thinks that we should. We are simply stunned to seeing women doing such things. Like the phrase “woman trucker,” the language is subtle, and yet it’s working quite hard. Equally potent is the verb “shatter”: these women are apparently “shattering” gender stereotypes, which implies that they are doing things no woman has done before, things that women are not expected to do, and that the women in the story are working in order tobreak the mold, when in fact, they probably just enjoy their jobs. Want to do their jobs.
But wait, you say. Didn’t you just tell us that only 6% of truck drivers are women? If that’s true, doesn’t Lakrit’s point hold?
The photo series shows us that there is nothing abnormal about women in these types of work. But the language that surrounds it -- and the language we often use to interrogate women doing that work -- shows us something different. Lakrit introduces the story with this: “With a photo series called “Women’s Work,” Crisman features accomplished individuals who prove that sometimes, the right man for the job is a woman.” Each photo is preceded by a short sentence about the project or a quote by Crisman, and although brief, the writing itself is revealing in the way it positions its subjects. Take, for example, the line, “[Crisman] hopes that the photos show how ‘women’s work’ can be anything at all” and “Overall, [Crisman] focused more on their work than their gender,” a statement that seems to quickly betray itself when one looks back at the title of their series.
Is the language undermining the work the images do?
What if we didn’t need read commentary, try to provide context, look for explanation?
But we all have moments where we need to implicate ourselves. A few months ago I found myself sitting in my semi outside an ag plant waiting to load. I wasn’t the only one. I pulled up alongside a driver from a competing company: it was Hannah (or so we’ll call her). As another driver about my age, she attracted my attention. I’d seen her around, exchanged a few necessary bits of info with her here and there, but never really talked to her. I’d watched this woman when I’d seen her previously, curious. Watched how she moved around her truck, how she worked with it. Noticed that she never waved when we met each other on the road. That day, we sat there in that parking lot, our trucks alongside each other, both of us in the drivers’ seats. I had a book to read: Hannah was immersed in her phone. I know this because I kept stealing glances to the left, not watching her really . . . okay, I was flat-out watching her. Wondering if I should get out of the cab and go over and talk to her. This was my opportunity, my chance to find out her story! She was like me, wasn’t she? Why was she here? What brought her to truck driving? I found myself anxious to know, yet too shy to get out of the driver’s seat to ask.
Reflecting on this later, I realized that I was guilty of exactly the thing that frustrated me about my own experiences. People questioning my motivations because of my gender or the way I looked.
My male counterparts in trucking don’t get questioned in the same way (or more accurately perhaps, my male counterparts of a certain class or educational background, but that’s another post). This is because trucking is assumed to be natural for them. A few days ago, a driver friend, a male close in age to myself, who is “intrigued” by my desire to drive truck and obtain a Ph.D., asked me what made me want to drive a semi. I sighed. I explained to him what I’ve already explained to you. Then I asked him what made him want to drive and received an answer like, “Well I’ve been around it my whole life . . .”
I wonder, then, are those of us without a neat and tidy answer to the whyquestion perhaps a more natural fit for the profession (as if this was a competition). Could I say, hey, without “growing up around it,” (and the subtle lack of career choice that implies), doesn’t it seem even more “right” that I still found my way to a profession I love and am talented at? More natural?
I wonder. Maybe we’re all looking at this wrong.
Looking at Crisman’s images, sitting next to Hannah in her semi, I found myself wanting to know the stories of my fellow women doing physical, dirty work. In obvious contradiction, I am tired, physically and mentally, of explaining on demand my own story. Does our perception of, or the impact of, women doing “men’s work” change if we have the background story? We desire to know, but do we need to know?
Long ago, during my first week of professional driving, I was with a woman road trainer somewhere in California. I distinctly remember making a right turn out of a truck stop and watching a car pause at the stop sign to let my semi pass by. My trainer and I looked at the occupants of the car, a woman and a young girl. Likely, perhaps, mother and daughter. We both witnessed the woman’s lips move, her finger point right at us as she said something to the girl, gestures and movements my trainer and I could both read as “Look, mother and daughter.” That wasn’t the case of course, Harriet and I were only co-workers, but the woman and girl in the car didn’t know our stories. A brief image of two women in a semi was all that passed by, and they saw what they wanted to see. Was their story of mother and daughter more powerful, more motivating, then the “true” story would have been?
A 2013 interview in The Guardianqueried several women in male dominated professions. In the United Kingdom, according to the article, female truckers are an even smaller percentage of the population, at only .5%. Driver Katie Gillard said, “‘I’m used to people doing a double-take when I’m driving. I get it every day, particularly when I’m sitting in traffic. It doesn’t bother me too much. I really enjoy driving.’” The same thing often happens to me: I’ll look over when sitting at a red light and see someone in a car staring at me. I usually smile and nod, maybe wave. I wonder what the person is thinking, what explanation they are giving themselves for my presence, or maybe what questions they have. In that moment I am only an image with little context. If “my viewers” knew my story, would it change their perception? Would my presence in trucking be more or less relevant, inspirational, shattering?
As someone who puts high value and enjoyment on reading and writing stories, these questions are troubling. Maybe though, there’s a simple distinction between choosing to share a story and having it demanded from us. I often tell my story, and I imagine other women in my position do the same, to encourage and motivate other women to come into the field of “men’s work” or to help people understand that there is really no such thing. But there is certainly a price to pay, personally, as this sort of gender-ambassador. It calls attention to difference and takes the focus off the work. It is a constant reminder that I might indeed be a woman truck driver, instead of the normal trucker that I imagine myself to be.
Diverse workplaces are important (a gigantic understatement). There are a lot of macro-level things that need to happen in order for us to see less gender disparity within occupations. I wonder if it is possible to assist this end-game by training ourselves to hold back just a little. What if we resisted the urge to interrogate everyone we saw as out of their element, everyone whose presence in work (or other social groups) was a little surprising? I’m just theorizing here. Maybe this seems like a small ask, or a strange one. Sharing stories disseminates knowledge and the “want to know” is admirable. But maybe a little more patience, a little more observation, a little more willingness to just accept a thing for what it is, to accept someone’s presence for what it is, is a better start.
truckdrivingjobs.com, History's IRT driver Lisa Kelly
Chris Crisman Photography, driver Leeann Johnson.
Claffey, Deirdre. “Meet the women doing ‘men’s work.’” The Guardian, 26 April 2013, theguardian.com.
Lakritz, Talia. “Stunning photos of women doing ‘men’s work’ shatter gender stereotypes.”Insider, 13 Mar. 2019, thisisinsider.com.
“Rookie Run.” Ice Road Truckers, produced by Thom Beers, season 3, episode 2, History
Channel, 7 June 2009.
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