November 9, 2017 3:15 PM, EST

Women’s Workplace Initiatives: Start Small, Include Many, Network Finds

Peterbilt Women’s Initiative Network members at the WIT conferencePeterbilt Women’s Initiative Network members at WIT's conference. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Women looking to establish initiatives that engage other women in the workplace should start small and involve all sectors of their organization, from the human resources department to executives, according to Erin Luke, fleet sales administration manager at Peterbilt Motors Co.

Luke and a group of colleagues formed the Peterbilt Women’s Initiative Network, or PBWIN, to bridge the gap for women in the trucking industry. According to Luke, women make up 47% of entry-level hires across all workplaces in America and 26% of entry-level hires in the auto industry.

According to Luke, numbers indicating discrepancies in the workplace can serve as starting points for redressing imbalances.

“One of the best things you can do is go back to the facts,” Luke said at the Women In Trucking Association’s annual conference Nov. 8. “Work with your HR department and management team to understand where you are so you can understand where you need to go. Work together to create measurable smart goals.”

PBWIN member Erin Luke on Nov. 8. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)

PBWIN, which has accrued 130 members since it launched less than two years ago, offers mentoring and outreach for both male and female employees. The group has engaged members through “lunch-and-learn” sessions, “TED-”style talks, book reviews, guest speakers and yoga classes.

Michelle Ponsonby, supplier recovery manager at Peterbilt, said establishing a mission statement anchored around the tenets of recruiting, self-development and mentoring ensured that all members of the group were moving in the same direction.

Keera Brooks, chief executive officer of Sawgrass Logistics, oversaw a survey that found that while only 15% of female drivers were offered a mentor during training, all female drivers who were offered mentors accepted them. The survey was conducted online this summer to determine best practices in recruiting and retaining women in the trucking industry.

“In no case did a woman say no to a mentor during training,” Brooks said. “If you want to think about women, women will take you up on the offer.”

PBWIN's Michelle Ponsonby. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)

Luke compared starting a women-focused initiative to creating ripples on a still surface of water. She said groups should start with small efforts, or pebbles, before attempting to lift boulders. The pebble at Peterbilt was recognizing the low number of women in the workplace, according to Luke.

“You need to start tossing pebbles into that pond and make the surface bend and flex,” Luke said. “Those pebbles are going to be your actions. Create those ripples. Create those waves.”

In addition to starting small, Luke said women’s initiatives should involve people in many sectors of a business and should not exclude men. Ponsonby said that two men serve on PBWIN’s steering committee.

Michele Rodgers, director of program management at Peterbilt, said that men generally disregard email invitations to PBWIN events because they assume men are not welcome at a women-focused event. To address this issue, the group started sending invitations that feature the event name prominently and subsequently mention that PBWIN is sponsoring the function.

In addition to a lack of women, the trucking industry faces an overall lack of drivers. The trucking industry is facing a shortage of 50,000 drivers by year’s end, according to American Trucking Associations. To bridge this gap, PBWIN has led programs specifically for young people.

Rodgers said PBWIN has hosted events at middle and elementary schools for students who may be interested in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering and math.

Ponsonby stressed the importance of introducing the possibility of trucking careers to children — especially girls — at a young age.

“Most girls aren’t sitting around thinking they want to drive trucks or design trucks,” Ponsonby said. “Open the door to young girls.”