Smart Moves: The truck stops here

Women's organisational and caring, sharing skills are in demand in the most male of preserves. And the transport industry finds it a delight, writes Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Online
LISTENING to the woes of a severely hacked-off truck driver after a bad journey may not be everybody's cup of tea, but for some women in the industry of logistics - loosely defined as the art of getting products to places and traditionally a man's job - it's an area in which they are able to excel.

Petite females who presumed to try and run a show which is all about practical, hands-on, heavy labour would, once upon a time, have been informed by seasoned truckies in no uncertain terms where to get off. But increasingly, many are finding niches in the industry and transforming its attitudes; they are also applying for jobs in droves.

One of the companies to notice the shift has been Wincanton Logistics, a nationwide distribution and transport service which forms part of Unigate, and which for the first time this year received more applications from women graduates than from men.

"We've always had an equal opportunities policy, but the number of men applying for positions has traditionally far outweighed that of women," says the firm's personnel director, Nigel Griffin. "I'm glad to say that the tide is now turning as the industry has become a far more attractive proposition to women."

Moroccan-born Zineb Oujaddi, 27, is in some ways a typical success story: she had plenty of pluck and a scientific background, but after beginning a career in medicine found she just couldn't stomach the sight of dead bodies. Although her father is a delivery driver, she never considered a career in transport herself until, by chance, she came to England from France and enrolled at Huddersfield University to study for a BSc in Transport and Distribution. She is now a trainee logistics manager.

"I ended up in it by accident, but I love it," she says. She had an inauspicious start after being turned down by one firm because she was too small. "They said they didn't think I would fit in, because they had this image of what they wanted," she says. At another interview she persuaded the hesitant manager to give her a day's trial, and eventually won a contract.

"There has been resistance, but when women are around in transport, there are lots of advantages," she insists. One seems tendentious but obvious: women can be more sympathetic about the trials and tribulations of the job. "Women who are transport supervisors know how to get the best from the driver. If he's had a bad time, it's important she speaks to him in such a way that he forgets the problem. If he comes back to a male supervisor, they might start shouting." Women, she argues, handle tough situations - and there are plenty in the logistics industry - with a softer touch.

Veronica Clark, 31, who joined Wincanton with an arts degree and is now one of the company's principal health and safety managers, agrees that women sometimes have a different approach to men, but believes they have to be no less resilient. "Going into such a male-dominated environment was one hell of a challenge. When I joined, I got the usual comments: 'You're younger than my daughter and you've never seen a lorry before; what do you know about transport?' My attitude was one of 'I'll show them I can do it'. I put my back into it and learnt from the basics upward; I was prepared to be flexible and gain more experience. There was resentment from existing supervisors, but one way was to find out as much as I could from the drivers. It's them who know the product."

Ms Clark brought her own strengths to bear: a knowledge of computers, an ability to organise and be methodical, and a willingness to study for the necessary exams and keep on top of current legislation. She was also inspired by Wincanton's scheme of placing her alongside an older woman mentor: she was only the company's fourth woman graduate.

One of the few tasks she found hard while working in the Midlands and organising loads of petroleum, vinegar and dry goods, was "spot-work" - ringing up at random to place a load. "The man I was working with had 20 years' more experience than I did, and I found it difficult to blag people. I was much happier when I had constraints to work within."

Ms Oujaddi says one of the hardest things has been changing other people's expectations. One of her mentors was a woman who began as a "picker" - someone who puts goods on to palettes - and worked her way up to oversee the whole operation. "It wasn't a handicap for me, being a woman, but I had to make other people understand that it doesn't matter. It takes a lot of perseverance." There have been other learning curves, too. "I learnt lots of new words in the warehouse, but that made the job funnier," she grins.

Women, she says, have a bright future in the industry. "It's started to become more open, and women who like to be challenged and are not scared about finding problems and making decisions will find many benefits in logistics and can go far. It's going to become a more important function in companies' structure. It's always the women who plan things at home: trips to the doctor, holidays, shopping lists. They're the people who are always doing the job."