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LUFKIN — Ashli Streeter entered truck driving school with high hopes of the open road and a well-paying job.
The 27-year-old from Killeen took out a $7,000 loan for school and received her commercial driver's license in May. After months of filling out applications, she was disappointed and confused. She couldn’t land a job.
“I didn’t have anything hindering me,” Streeter said. “I didn’t have tickets or DUIs. I wasn’t understanding why it was so hard for me.”
Streeter frequently received the same response to her applications, she said. Upon hiring, Streeter would need several weeks of training by a seasoned driver — a common industry standard, the potential employers said. However, she was told she was only allowed to train with a woman and that because there was no woman trainer available, she would be placed on a waiting list. Weeks would pass and Streeter couldn’t get off the waitlist. Meanwhile, she said, she watched freshly-graduated male drivers get hired immediately.
Fed up with the struggle, Streeter shared her experience on social media. When other female drivers commented on her post, Streeter discovered her experience wasn’t unique. The gender discrimination was more widespread than she thought.
Earlier this month, Streeter and other female truck drivers filed a class-action employment discrimination complaint against Texas-based trucking company Stevens Transport. Filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the complaint alleges that Stevens’ same-sex training practice unfairly denies women job opportunities and violates Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.
Dallas-based Stevens Transport is one of the largest refrigerated trucking companies in the country. The company’s attorney, Bruce Dean, denied that Stevens has a same-sex training policy. He said the company has a program that certifies both male and female drivers to train new drivers of any gender. Currently, 60 drivers are certified cross trainers, Dean said.
“The complaint is based on misunderstanding or on a policy that we don’t have,” Dean said. He added that the company’s cross-training program was developed in response to a previous sexual harassment lawsuit against Stevens several years ago. He did not specify what type of training drivers must receive in order to train new drivers of the opposite gender.
The complainants, though — including three women truck drivers and members of REAL Women in Trucking, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of female truck drivers — allege that they were all denied truck driver positions at Stevens Transport because of their gender.
According to the complaint, one woman said she received an email from a Stevens Transport representative that stated there is a waitlist for “female starts” and that she does not have an anticipated start date. Others recount phone conversations with Stevens Transport representatives who, the complaint says, referenced a policy of only having women train women or a “freeze on hiring women” because there was a lack of female trainers. Some complainants say they would have been willing to train with a man if that meant they could start earlier. But representatives told them that was not possible.
“There are no trainers, male or female, willing to train women trainees,” Kim Howard, one of the complainants, said she was told by a Stevens representative.
The filing comes as the trucking industry faces a nationwide shortage of about 78,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Association. If current trends continue, that shortage could surpass 160,000 in 2031. The shortage in part stems from the scarcity of women in the field — women make up just 8% of all drivers.
The shortage is particularly significant in Texas, which employs the highest number of truck drivers in the country. In 2022, Texas had 144,542 trucking jobs. In East Texas, truck transportation is among the largest employers and pays above the region’s average wage. The number of heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver jobs is expected to grow by 16% between 2018 and 2028, according to Workforce Solutions East Texas.
Peter Romer-Friedman, a labor lawyer representing the plaintiffs alongside the National Women’s Law Center, said Stevens is not the only company with unlawful training policies. Romer-Friedman declined to name the other companies that had similar training policies. But he said he hopes this complaint is the first step toward eliminating gender-based discrimination industry-wide.
“The question is why are we at a point in 2023 that women are treated so stereotypically and so unequally that a woman who has been certified to drive an 18-wheeler can’t get a job?” Romer-Friedman said.
A male-dominated field
A decade ago, a federal judge ruled that it is unlawful for a trucking company to require candidates to train with females, a ruling that makes the plaintiffs feel confident that their complaint will be taken seriously.
Same-sex training policies were initially put in place to protect women from sexual harassment or hostility in the male-dominated workplace. Female drivers do report high rates of harassment — in one poll, a third of female drivers reported that they had been inappropriately touched in the workplace.
Liz Chacko, an attorney at the National Women’s Law Center who is co-counsel on the complaint, said creating a same-sex training policy is not the right way to address sexual harassment.
“It’s nonsensical and unlawful,” Chacko said. “It’s a total failure of creativity if what they are trying to do is help women.”
In the complaint, the plaintiffs assert that Stevens Transport can address sex-based harassment while treating women equally in hiring by, for example, providing employees with training to prevent sex-based harassment and by offering safe reporting mechanisms and clear policies for responding to harassment claims.
Desiree Wood, president of REAL Women in Trucking, said having a female trainer does not guarantee a positive experience. At one company Wood previously worked at, she said her female trainer was “popping pills” while driving well over the speed limit. Wood, who is Hispanic, said the trainer also yelled racial slurs at her.
The company then sent Wood to train with a male trainer, who helped Wood get to the point where she could drive independently.
Still, Wood said she knows that being a woman can reduce her odds of getting hired. Sometimes, she said, she responds to trucking job advertisements from her boyfriend’s email account. She’ll reveal her qualifications for the job before sharing her gender.
“There are a lot of local companies that don’t really see us as capable,” Wood said. “The trucking industry has put so much emphasis on how they are welcoming women without really preparing the industry for it.”
Truck driver shortage
As women fight to remove discriminatory hiring practices, some Texas employers are trying to attract more female employees. In July, Lamar State College Port Arthur celebrated the opening of a new commercial driver’s license training and examination center, the largest in the state. The college has also partnered with Bechtel Engineering, which launched an initiative to hire more women for male-dominated fields including trucking.
The college runs advertising campaigns encouraging female participation in training. Since launching the campaigns, the number of females in the driving classes has nearly doubled, said Ben Stafford, vice president of workforce development and continuing education at Lamar State College Port Arthur.
Bringing more women to the trucking industry could help address the labor shortage in places like Deep East Texas, where heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are among the top in demand high-wage occupations.
Truck drivers earn an average of about $55,000 per year, a fact that many students don’t realize.
“Our education system doesn’t emphasize work like commercial driving even though you can make a good living,” Stafford said. “So we have drivers retiring at a faster rate than they are training.”
The outcome of the complaint against Stevens is yet to be seen. Once a complaint is filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that agency conducts its own investigation to determine whether there was a legal violation. It can either prosecute the case or give the plaintiffs a right-to-sue letter. The investigation process can take anywhere from six months to multiple years.
The EEOC said in an email that they are unable to comment on complaints.
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