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Q+A: Idella Hansen on being a woman in trucking and a Sister of the Road

March 8, 2024 / US
Q+A: Idella Hansen on being a woman in trucking and a Sister of the Road

Idella Hansen started her trucking career with two pieces of advice from a fellow driver: “Don’t leave the house without a jacket and don’t piss into the wind.”  

The man had picked her up from the ground after, on one of her first days hauling flatbed, she’d let a chain fly and knocked herself out. He said he’d show her how to do it properly rather than do it for her.

Today, Idella’s reputation precedes her in the trucking industry. She’s been driving for her entire career and, now 74, has no plans of retiring. Idella has been recognized in the industry with the Trucking Trailblazer’s Award from the Real Women in Trucking Association. She has also been a recipient of TA/Petro’s Citizen Drivers award; the TA/Petro truck stop in Little Rock, AR is dedicated to her. Idella’s also one of the 40 women featured in the photography collection Sisters of the Road by Anne Marie Michel which, this month, is on tour in the U.S. for the first time. The tour is timed to coincide with International Women’s Month. It honors women in trucking like Idella for their work in the industry, elevates their experience and shines a spotlight on the challenges they continue to face.  

We caught up with Idella to learn about her experience as a female driver, get her perspective on how the industry has evolved, and understand what it means for her to be part of the Sisters of the Road.

Our team at Uber Freight is excited to be supporting Anne Marie Michel to bring Sisters of the Road on tour in the U.S. and to celebrate women in logistics this International Women’s Day. Women make up less than 10% of truckers today—and that number was less than 5% in 2010 and even smaller when you started driving. What’s it been like for you to be a woman in a male-dominated industry? 

You know I compare it to women’s history and how things happen. You know clerks, typists, secretaries were all men at one time. Nurses were all men at one time. I have never considered it a masculine job. I’ve always considered it as my job. It’s not his job, it’s not her job. It’s my job, and I do it well.

What inspired you to pursue a career in trucking in the first place? 

If it hadn’t been for my dad’s Aunt Leona I probably wouldn’t have done it. My dad was dead set against me driving a truck. He wanted me to be an accountant. My mother wanted me to go to music school. But my Aunt Leona was a lady before her time. She was doing interior decorating and working with male contractors when nobody was doing that. She was the one that told me to follow my heart. I’ve been driving since I was 11. If it’s motorized and it’ll crank to start I can run it. 

What were those early years of driving like for you being a female driver when everyone else you worked with were men? 

When I first started pulling flatbed, I was in a competition. I always had to be there first. I went without sleep, I went without food to be first in line. I had to have the least amount of problems. I would check my truck over three or four times because I was absolutely petrified that something was going to go wrong with the truck and that everybody would say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s her fault, she’s a female, blah blah…’ 

I was fully capable of doing my job. I never asked anybody to do my job for me, not ever. I did ask how to do it. I would explain, look, I don’t know what I’m doing. Show me what to do. A couple of times I’ve had a scare or some bad experiences, but 98% of the time when you had to wait for somebody to come pick you up if you broke down on the side of the road we took care of each other.

Idella Hansen early on in her career

What’s different today about the industry from your perspective—and do you think the change is good?

It has changed. Now, with cell phones, you don’t have to wait [by the side of the road], you can just call someone. Social media and the internet have made things better. You get on social media, and you’re always gonna have some jerks somewhere, but I see a lot of good stuff on there. There’s a lot of mentors out there, male and female both. You can connect with people. But there are some other things that have happened that are not so good.

What do you think isn’t so good—what’s harder today for drivers than before?

It’s called just-in-time. The warehouses don’t want to be overstocked. The manufacturers don’t want to be overstocked. They want it there when they need it, because they don’t want to have to pay for it. Well, that has a domino effect right down to Idella Hansen. I used to be able to go to the part store even 10 years ago and get whatever I needed for my pickup, and go home and put it on. Now it’s, ‘Oh we’ll have it here tomorrow,’ or ‘We’ll have to back order that.’ Just recently, it was fuel filters for my truck. People are buying these trucks, and then something happens, and the part is on backorder and next thing you know their truck is in the shop for two months, because they can’t get the part. That’s just incomprehensible to me. 

And the trucks are getting more technical. To repair these new freightliners, you have to take the truck half apart. When I put a new transmission in on my 2000 freight liner, I was done in five hours. With the new freight liners, people are saying getting a transmission in the truck is taking three weeks, four weeks. That’s unsustainable as a business. 

Despite these challenges, more women are becoming truck drivers now than they were a decade ago. Today, nearly 12% of drivers are women, and 14% of trucking firms are owned by women. What are some pieces of advice you would give to women thinking about joining the industry? 

What I have to tell these ladies is three things. One is that they’re telling you you’re going to make this big money, but they don’t tell you that you’re going to be gone or what it’s gonna take. They don’t tell you that they’re not teaching you how to drive a truck. All they’re doing is getting your CD out for you. You’ve got to do your research.

Number two is it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. You have to realize that there are going to be times that you have to be really creative with your hygiene. Some of the ladies do real good at being froufrou out here on the road—I don’t know how they do it. 

Three, you’re not always going to be treated with respect. And it’s not just because you’re a woman. You’re a driver, you’re a commodity. It’s not just oh, I wanna whip off at this particular exit, and take a tractor and trailer in there because it doesn’t work that way. They don’t care that you don’t have a place to go to the bathroom or a place to eat. All they know is they’re not going to get you unloaded for twelve hours, or they’re not going to get you a load for twelve hours, and that’s your problem. 

One of the things we’ve been talking about a lot as part of the Sisters of the Road tour is that women are the backbone of freight and logistics. Do you think that’s true and why?

When you look for somebody that takes their job seriously, takes the service part seriously, I bet you’re gonna find a lot more women. I bet you’re going to find women doing the backbreaking work, the hard stuff. I think that’s a female trade. When I worked at Prescott every once in a while, I’d have to run team. Every time I came back my truck would be gone because it was the cleanest truck. I put red mudflaps on it and men on the mudflaps, and that stopped. They didn’t take my truck anymore.

We’re the backbone of the country—and not just us women, but all drivers. We are the lifeblood of the country. And I know automatic trucks are coming, I see it all the time. I’m not for it, I’m not against it. But you’re still gonna need us.

You’ve built a reputation in the industry, and of course you’re one of the women featured in the Sisters of the Road book. What does that mean for you and what has it been like since the collection has been published?

This is a major thing for women in this industry, and I’m happy that I got to be a part of it. It made me feel like I was getting a job as a model. And the picture she took of me are me—all the wrinkles in all my glory and the attitude. She caught who I was. I’ve always hated having my picture taken, but Anne Marie—she’s awesome. She gives me a reason to keep on going, and I’ll be 74 on my birthday. Being in the book makes me want to do it more. You know, every once in a while this arm hurts, my shoulder hurts, my grandson tells me I look old. Anne Marie makes me want to do better. She makes me want to be beautiful. 

Idella Hansen’s fast favorites:

  • Song on the road: I’ll Never Run that Back Door Anymore by Long Haul Paul 
  • Truck manufacturer: Freightliner and Caterpillar engines 
  • Highway: Columbia River Gorge
  • Truckstop: Travel Centers of America, North Little Rock
  • Diner: 13 South, Levittown, PA, the Dallas Diner (now closed after 37 years)
  • Travel companion: I love my animals. Right now I have a French bulldog named Gunnie who has two brain cells. 
  • Snack on the road: Cold watermelon
  • Radio station: Trucking Bozo
  • Way to keep in touch with loved ones while away from home: Cellphone and a family Facebook page that we keep up with each other on.
Gunnie, Idella’s current traveling companion

For more information on Uber Freight’s support of Sisters of the Road, check out our blog post and follow @sistersoftheroadtour on Instagram to stay up-to-date with the latest on the tour.

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