Women represent 7% of long-haul truckers. What's life like for them on the road?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
During his first year in the White House, the Biden administration released an action plan to strengthen America's trucking workforce. It was meant to address supply chain disruptions, and one idea was to recruit more women to drive. Right now they represent less than 7% of truck drivers.
BRANDIE DIAMOND: Hello to everybody out there.
JESS GRAHAM: Started my day at 3 a.m.
MICHELLE: I delivered in California, in the Redlands area.
GRAHAM: Mobile, Ala.
MICHELLE: Seven hundred twenty-six miles today.
DIAMOND: It's time to get rolling.
INSKEEP: Some of the women who do drive - as part of their series on work cultures around the world, NPR's podcast Rough Translation talked with women drivers about what it's like to feel alone on the road and the power of something called windshield time. Here's ROUGH TRANSLATION host Gregory Warner.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In the fall of 2010, Jess Graham upended her life. She left an abusive partner, took her 10-year-old daughter and hit the road in the new tractor trailer that she'd just been licensed to drive.
GRAHAM: I'm going to go somewhere else. And I'm going to reinvent myself. And I'm going to start over. And I'm going to make my life what I'm going to make it.
WARNER: In my mind - maybe it's a movie version, but you're pulling up in your truck. You're jumping out, and you're literally just bundling her up with some clothes and piling her in the truck. It probably wasn't like that, but...
GRAHAM: No, that was exactly what it was. I came in, packed her up and went to the school and told her that she is no longer enrolled and that she will be homeschooling. And we hit the road.
WARNER: The living space was 8 feet by 8 feet - two bunk beds.
GRAHAM: I have a picture. And she's got all of her stuff in her little cubbies and sitting on her bed smiling.
WARNER: She got her rollerblades and her Nintendo DS and a big backpack stuffed with schoolbooks.
GRAHAM: It's similar to running away and joining the circus. It's about as close as I could come to that, kind of breaking free from a situation that was not healthy mentally and stretching my legs and seeing what I'm made of.
WARNER: Jess and her daughter, Halima, lived in the truck. Jess also home-schooled her.
GRAHAM: You know, we've had dry erase markers, where she's just writing down the side of the window a math problem that she's struggling with. And so we're walking through it together.
WARNER: Wait. Wait. She's writing the math problem on the windshield? Like...
GRAHAM: She would lean forward in her seat and write on the windshield the math problem. And we could walk through it together as I'm driving down the road.
WARNER: About 90% of truckers identify as male. But Jess did not find it unwelcoming to be a single mom on the road. In fact, she sometimes felt like the industry had a big girls allowed sign hanging over its door, like when she and her daughter, Halima, would struggle into the driver's lounge at a truck stop.
GRAHAM: The guys would always hand over the remote and...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS")
MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) You get the best of both worlds.
GRAHAM: So then there's Halima watching "Hannah Montana" with, like, four drivers, and they're just all just asking her questions.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS")
CYRUS: (Singing) 'Cause you know you've got the best of both worlds.
WARNER: Less than a year after they first pulled away from her ex's house, Jess was able to put all the money she'd saved trucking into a house. And she got a nanny, a friend of theirs.
GRAHAM: You know, made sure that she did her schoolwork and did her chores. And, you know, I worked and paid all the bills.
WARNER: And Jess went back on the road without her daughter. And immediately, she noticed a change in the treatment that she got from some of the other drivers now that she did not have a 10-year-old in tow.
GRAHAM: You tend to get a single woman out here, and you're like, why are you out here? Well, you should be home with your kids. You get that attitude from a lot of men out here. Having Halima with me softened the blow. When they saw Halima, they realized why I was out here and what I was doing. And it reminded them of their own family, so it almost made it easier.
WARNER: Halima's presence also shielded her in a different way. If her daughter had not been on the road with her and the company not made adjustments for that, then Jess might have been assigned a co-driver or trainee driver that first year.
GRAHAM: A lot of these companies - after you finish your training or even as part of your training, you have to run team freight, you know, with some stranger in an 8-by-8 box. It's hard.
WARNER: Almost always, that stranger's a man - sleeping in the other bunk bed. And Jess also found that without her daughter with her, she did not have much reason to linger in drivers lounges. She didn't feel comfortable hanging out in the parking lot if she wasn't there to watch Halima rollerblade while the sun went down. And Jess says that, gradually - and like a lot of women in trucking - her strategy to get through the days was just to keep her head down and keep moving.
GRAHAM: When you see another woman out here - we tend to stick to ourselves and keep our heads down and just self-isolate. And it's easier to just keep our head down than it is to interact or make waves, you know, just quietly go about our day.
WARNER: Jess spent years self-isolating like this. She became withdrawn and solitary.
GRAHAM: Like, I - honestly, I have a hard time functioning when I'm not in my truck. I don't know how to grocery shop anymore. I can't handle that experience anymore because I've kind of lost all of those normal daily routines that most people do.
WARNER: But those long stretches of solitude also led the way to Jess' own transformation. Truckers have a phrase for this - windshield time.
GRAHAM: The same way my daughter used the windshield to solve her problems in the math world - I'm not using a dry erase marker on the windshield, but I am using the windshield. I'm counting the miles. I'm counting the cars.
WARNER: Drivers say that windshield time is more than just time spent driving. It can be a period of self-reflection and inner change.
GRAHAM: So it gives you that time to decide, are you going to continue on this path, or are you going to pick a new path? Every mile out there is different from your last mile. So every time you see a new mile, that's a new opportunity.
WARNER: And for Jess, that new opportunity was in advocacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GRAHAM: Hey, everyone. It's Jess from the board of directors of Real Women In Trucking. And we are here at the Mid-America Truck Show, Louisville, Ky.
WARNER: In 2021, after more than a decade on the road, Jess became a board member of Real Women In Trucking. It's a group advocating for training and legislation to prevent violence against women in trucking schools and on the road.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GRAHAM: We've signed up some new members. Come out...
WARNER: Jess still has her bad days, days of unbearable loneliness. But it's different now. In the beginning, she says she chose trucking to get away from her ex. But now her daughter is in college. And this job - it's become a part of her in a way that she doesn't want to give up.
GRAHAM: In the beginning, it was about escape. It was about getting on a new path. And now it is about the freedom, getting out there and living my life, where that was for survival, but now it's just for who I am.
INSKEEP: Windshield time - hope somebody's listening is getting that right now. Hear more stories of women truckers and other work lives on the podcast that Gregory Warner hosts, Rough Translation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD MOTHER TRUCKER")
ERIC CHURCH: (Singing) She drove an '81 Peterbilt 18-wheeler, jet black with pink mud flaps. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.