What truck drivers can teach us about gender equality: part 1 of 2

It has been fascinating to watch the recent debate over lorry driver shortages in the UK. Despite being quite a small occupation (around 200,000 jobs), it is clearly vital to the functioning of our modern, logistics-dependent economy. It is also a fascinating case study in how informative, illuminating and interesting it is to dig into the data around any micro-phenomenon like this.

Whenever there is a shortage of workers, a couple of “obvious” solutions tend to get offered up: pay employees more, improve their working conditions, train more people, and/or allow more immigration to fill the vacancies. [There are other less palatable options hinted at, too, such as make benefits less “generous” so that the opportunity cost of working is lower.]

What is intriguing to me is that so far, I believe I am the first one to have raised another — perhaps outlandish — possibility: what about training and recruiting more women to do the job? After all, only 2% of current drivers of large goods vehicles are female (see chart, top left hand corner). I’m not necessarily suggesting this for real, but it is a powerful thought experiment. In this and my next blog, I’ll share a few thoughts on what it reveals.

There are several immediate objections that come to mind when suggesting that more women could become truck drivers. Some are around “will” — would they want to? Others around “skill” — would they be able to hack it? Since I’m confident that anyone with the “will” can obtain the “skill”, I’ll focus on the former (even though will return to some aspects of the latter in my 2nd post).

Why, indeed, would any woman want to be a truck driver? Well, the occupation doesn’t have much to recommend it. It’s poorly paid, the hours are long and antisocial, and it’s physically (and mentally) demanding.

So not that different from a nursing assistant’s job?

The chart above provides some fascinating comparisons.

First of all, at nearly £12 per hour, truck drivers are actually better paid than nursing assistants at £11 per hour (bottom left hand panel). This is despite a vastly higher proportion of nursing assistants having a degree or above (top row, second panel from left); and a significantly fewer nursing assistants (3%) compared to lorry drivers (11%) having no qualifications at all. What’s more, amongst the existing large vehicle goods drivers, women are paid around 9% less on average than men (bottom row, second panel from left), while male assistant nurses are paid essentially the same as female ones.

It is true that lorry drivers work much longer hours, on average, per week (top row, 3rd panel from left). However, while I would have thought work-related illnesses, working days lost, and issues like back pain, would be worse for drivers, it is in fact the opposite. Many more nursing assistants suffer from work-related back problems than do lorry drivers (bottom row, 3rd panel from left). Nursing assistants lost an average 1.6 days of work per year due to work-related illness, compared to 1.5 days for goods vehicle drivers.

Surprisingly, there is no real difference in the level of overall anxiety and stress experienced by lorry drivers and nursing assistants (top row, right hand panel). People in both occupations are broadly happy with their lives (bottom row, right hand panel). It is well known that one’s emotional state at work spills over to one’s overall life, so these scores should be indicative of work stress and satisfaction, too. (Around 25% of the variation in individuals’ overall life satisfaction can be explained by their satisfaction in their job.)

There is some data on work-related stress, anxiety and depression at a more aggregated level. Here, comparing all “Road transport drivers” (including van, bus, and taxi drivers) to all “Nursing and midwifery professionals” suggests significantly lower stress levels amongst the first. For example, among “Road transport drivers”, roughly 700 people per 100,000 workers reported work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2019–2020; among “Nursing and midwifery professionals”, the same figure was 2,700 — so almost four times as many.

Four times as many nursing professionals, compared to road transport drivers, suffer from job-related stress, anxiety or depression

No, you cannot conclude from this that logistics companies should recruit women by avertising lorry driving to nursing assistants as a less stressful job. There are a million and one other factors at play. But it is very interesting to ask: what would it take for women to want to do this job? It’s not rocket science. Probably things like better pay, fewer hours, more comfortable surroundings, more female-friendly lorries*, not feeling isolated or in the minority, not fearing for your safety, more social interaction**, better bosses, better, cheaper, more flexible, more easily available childcare, and so on.

I would be willing to bet that fixing some of those issues would make many more men want to do it, too.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will compare lorry drivers to CEOs and marketing and sales directors. We don’t have enough women in those jobs either and, as it turns out, the reasons are not that different.

* I feel fairly comfortable extrapolating here from Caroline Criado Pérez’s book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”. In it, she finds that women are more likely to die in car accidents partly because the safety features of cars have been designed for and tested with primarily male drivers in mind. Smaller women also find it harder to reach all the controls and see out of cars without obstruction. I would be surprised if lorries are any more suitable for women (or smaller men, for that matter).

** Social relationships are among the most important factors determining both someone’s job satisfaction and their overall happiness.

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I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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Tera Allas

Tera Allas

I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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