The white-van man” stereotype is over

A recent survey found that 43 per cent of van drivers in the UK are women. Half of them read a broadsheet and a third practise yoga. It’s a far cry from the “white-van man” stereotype first coined by the Sunday Times in 1997.

Characterised as a Sun-reading, beer-drinking, fry-up enthusiast, a poll of 537 drivers by the boffins at Mercedes-Benz has instead revealed a workforce of avocado-eating, eco-friendly yoga practitioners. Who knew? Well, the women below for one. From delivering packages to (almost) delivering babies, we spoke to 10 drivers of white vans and lorries about what it means to be a woman on the road.

Fernanda, 35, courier specialising in the fashion industry

What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to deliver?
I work with PRs, stylists and magazines. Sometimes I have to deliver some really weird shoes or massive hats. It feels like a different world.

How aware were you of the white-van man” stereotype before you took your job?
When I started [driving], I’d just turned 18 and got a job at a car park. I was the only girl driving a van there and sharing the space with men was quite difficult. If I needed to bend down to pick something up, everyone stopped to look. The manager used to come and check up on us even though that wasn’t his job. He would try to give me coffee or get me to try his. I didn’t last long because of all the horrible things – getting [called] nicknames and stuff. Since then, I’ve made rules for myself and established boundaries.

Do you feel a difference in how people approach you?
I still face reactions like: Oh my gosh, you drive? Can you really drive this van? Why do you do that?” I also get stupid questions about how much I earn and I don’t think they ask men the same thing. But there has been a change for the better. As I see more women doing the job, I feel more blended into society again.

Jess, 35, business owner

What’s your job title?
I’m a professional dog walker and I’ve got four vans. We walk dogs but a lot of it is driving.

Were you intimidated by the white-van man stereotype?
I wasn’t. I lived in New Zealand for seven years and used to drive a snow bus, so it wasn’t as intimidating as it might have been for most women.

Is there a difference in people’s approach to women van drivers?
It depends on the day. You do find that a lot of male drivers get road rage quite quickly. There are a lot of men that flip the bird, so to speak. I don’t get women doing that. I can’t say there’s one that has done it.

Are high fuel costs having an impact on what you do?
It’s been a massive issue. Because we drive all day, we’ve put together a new business plan to go for a more eco-friendly approach. We were looking at getting an electric van but the technology isn’t there yet, so we went for a lower emission transporter.

Are your motivations economic, environmental or both?
Definitely both, I’m a keen environmentalist. I’m vegetarian, I’m heavy on composting, have my own chickens and go to the local refill station. We try to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

Christina, 33, HGV driver

How do people react to you as a woman driver?
I would say that 90 per cent of the feedback is good. But then you get 10 per cent of negative comments that you just have to ride out and keep going. I’ve received multiple inappropriate comments and I’ve been sexually assaulted while I’ve worked in this industry, but that’s all dealt with now. It’s made me more determined to pave the way for the future ladies, so they don’t have to go through what we’re going through now.

What are the biggest misconceptions you face?
That I can’t do the job. But I can probably do the job better than most men.

Margaret, 57, courier

How do people react when you tell them that you drive a van for a living?
Really?” They’re shocked, and quite surprised.

What do people assume about your job that isn’t accurate?
That I’m a lesbian, because I’m doing a man’s job”. They don’t think you’re strong enough to do it. [When] I’m lifting, people offer to help and it’s like: Ooh no no no, I’m probably stronger than you.” More often than not, I am.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?
The people. I’m a people person. I’ve watched people be born, I’ve watched people die, I’ve watched people get married. I delivered a fellow their birthing pool and the next time I was there, he came running down the stairs shouting: She’s in labour, she’s in labour!” A few days later, they showed up with the baby. I’ve watched kids grow. I love it, I love people and I love chatting. The birthing pool story is my favourite memory.

Melodie, 25, Class 1 driver, general haulage

What made you want to start driving a lorry?
My hobbies fit in pretty well with it. I do motocross, supermoto [biking] and track, so driving fits well with what I do.

How have the reactions been?
Catch 22. It’s either very positive and people can be really respectful or I get the other end of it: You don’t deserve to be in a lorry, you should be making sandwiches and belong in the kitchen.” But 98 per cent of it is positive and respectful, so it’s gone a lot better than I thought it would. I do suggest girls get into it.

What do you listen to when you’re on the road?
I either listen to country music or a bit of heavier stuff, rock n’ roll, old-school rock, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

What’s your freshener of choice?

Jemima, 24, and Kesia, 26, casting directors and sisters

What made you want to start driving a van?
Jemima: Freedom. I wanted to go on road trips and drive with my sister.

Were you aware of the white-van man stereotype before you started driving a van? Did it put you off at all?
Jemima: 100 per cent, and nope – it made me want to drive even more. We experience it all the time as we drive, too. A white-van man will pull up next to us thinking it’s a guy and they’re so shocked when they see it’s a girl at the front.

Are the current high fuel costs having an impact on what you do?
Kesia: Yeah, ULEZ [London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which charges the most polluting vehicles £12.50 a day] is also an added cost. It does control our decisions a little but we also live as freely as we can. We try not to get too worried.

Would you consider switching to an electric van?
Kesia: 100 per cent, if it was cheaper.

What are your hobbies?
Kesia: We love yoga and we have a little side hustle of vintage-buying-to-sell. We go travelling up and down the country on buying trips and do little pop-up sales, car-boot sales. That takes up a lot of our time.

Laurie, 32, lorry driver and transport manager for her family business

What made you want to start driving?
My dad said I’d never pass my test even though I was in [lorries] from the age of nine. I had horses so I would drive my horseboxes when I was competing. Then I started driving myself, full-time. I’ve been driving for 14 years.

Are people welcoming to you as a woman van driver?
I’ve never really, and still haven’t to this day, had a problem with anyone. Anyone who is an issue, I’m an issue. I can give it just as good as I get it! But in general, I’ve never had a problem.

Do you have an exercise routine to unwind after work?
I suffer from a bad back so I try to do a lot of yoga. I also try to have as many massages as I can, which is handy because my sister is a beautician. But in general, I love jobs where I can be active. I really work myself when I’m doing something.

Emma, 27, truck driver

Were you intimidated entering the industry as a woman?
I’m not going to lie, I’ve had my Class 2 licence for five years but I actually didn’t use it for two years because I was worried about the response I would get, being a female truck driver. [After that] I went straight into it and actually had a lot of support, nine times out of 10. There is an odd comment like people saying you’re taking men’s jobs”. I have had to deal with harassment but that was a one-off. And that wasn’t another trucker.

What kind of things do you deliver?
At the minute, I work in woodchip. I do deliver crisps, drinks, too… nothing exciting. Tree stumps are probably as exciting as it gets.

Do you do anything to unwind at the end of a work day?
I meditate and like to read.

Rebecca, 28, leakage testing engineer

Ever had any issues with male drivers?
People are quite suspicious when they see me driving. Sometimes it’s hilarious. A guy once asked if the van was mine and I told him it was my company’s and he said: Yeah, I thought this was a strange choice.” I think he said that because it was a woman driving it. Nobody questions a man driving a van.

Have you felt a difference in reactions over the years?
It always depends on the type of job that I’m working on. Sometimes I go on site and people are super switched on about women drivers and having them there. I’ll need to make my way in and get them used to my presence. But as a member of the public, I’m seeing more women drivers and that was something I never saw [before]. Growing up in Italy, I never saw any. I have definitely noticed a shift.

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