Friday, March 26, 2010

Have you heard the one about the woman driver?

A friend joked recently, via Facebook, about women and parking. My knee-jerk reaction surprised no-one who knows me, I issued an immediate challenge to a ‘reverse-off’ next time we meet. Which I will naturally win. I have parked ambulances in London, stretch limos in Toronto and 18 wheeled tractor-trailers in Texas. So why am I so touchy around the ‘women drivers’ gag genre?

This little spat led me to ponder attitudes to women drivers over the years. I was twenty-five when, seeking a little more excitement in my life, I ditched postgrad research to become an ambulance driver. This was 1980ish. Feminism had gone a long way towards ensuring that women had equal opportunities in male-dominated professions, but those opportunities only really existed at recruitment level. We were entitled to be interviewed and aptitude-tested. We were entitled to be trained and examined. Instructors were, quite rightly, tasked with making zero allowances for our stature and limited upper body strength. (Although, if you caught one in a good mood he would confess that women were much easier to teach. They had no ego invested in their driving skills and would listen and learn better as a result.) But, if the training wasn’t quite gruelling enough and some of us had to be employed, no legalities or political niceties ensured acceptance on the job.

The comments were predictable enough, easy to deflect, but there all the same:
We can’t have women on our station, there’s only one toilet.
My wife won’t like it.
Women can’t lift.
Women can’t drive.

Women can’t defend themselves. Well this one was reasonable, I’m hopeless in a fight, but the good news was that women generally didn’t need to. The same chaps who were so solicitous of our welfare when they thought it might keep us out of their working lives, became amusingly fond of sending the all-female crew to sort out pub brawls ‘because you’re less threatening’. Their ultimate weapon, the tactic of choice for upsetting the ladies so much that they’d cry and leave the service, was to run a series of blue movies in the mess room on night shifts. My crewmate and I retaliated by settling down with our knitting and criticising the acting. That was fun. The movies stopped. Eventually we all fell into an uneasy truce; which gradually moved through grudging acceptance to mutual respect and honorary chapship.

This may be sounding as though I don’t respect the male of the species, but those years taught me some fundamental workplace rules that I value to this day. Say what you mean, deal with conflict up front, watch the other person’s back regardless of personality defects. Have a row, have a beer, forget it. I can’t work any other way now and find myself in frequent hot water when office politics require a defter touch. Maybe this is why, finding myself in need of a job in Canada, I have drifted back to the freedom of driving for a living. The romance of the open road, the life of the long-haul trucker, the glory of 18 wheels...yes I’m back doing a job that can threaten delicate machismo. My work gloves are fur-lined and covered in diesel instead of latex and covered in blood, I may be permanently terrified (and not very good yet) but the satisfaction of ‘real work’ is familiar and comforting. Besides, I’m convinced there’s a market for a book about a British lady trucker touring North America one truckstop at a time. And Having Adventures.

What about this ‘women drivers’ thing though? It’s been thirty years (give or take). Has anything changed since the trail-blazing days? Oddly enough, yes. A few dinosaurs look down their noses, occasional insults fly via CB radio, but I’m discovering that women are positively popular with freight transport companies. The absence of testosterone tends to caution and therefore safety. They are easier on clutches and brakes and save on maintenance. They are polite to border guards, which minimises delay. I am reliably informed by several trainers that although we ladies have a tendency to take longer to get the hang of reversing a 53 foot articulated trailer (tell me about it) we are invariably more accurate in the end. Bluntly, we bend less stuff.

On the road, the respect is less grudging than it was. But maybe the difference is me. Back in the day I had a trail to blaze, a gender to defend and plenty to prove. I’m in my 50s now and a tad less energetic. Any gentlemanly soul who offers to help me with a recalcitrant landing-gear winch is thanked with a smile and the offer of coffee, not growled at to bugger off and leave me alone. Both sides appear to have mellowed. At this rate, maybe one day I will be able to field a ‘women drivers’ joke with a wry grin instead of a snarl.

1 comment:

  1. Instead of truck driving I was head bouncer at college, then eventually went into IT. Both places where there are rather more men than women. It was easier to deal with the bouncers though, you aren't supposed to flatten subordinate programmers.