A Woman's Place: Women in Transportation
“A Woman’s Place” is a new series spotlighting the women making bold moves in male-dominated industries.
Five days a week, you can find 32-year-old Ty Hooks in an 18-wheeler truck somewhere between Dallas and Las Vegas. She’s probably driving with the windows down, blasting Teyana Taylor or Kendrick Lamar under the open desert skies. This 1,200-mile route is Hooks’ office, but it’s also where she feels most at home.
“I love being out there,” she says when we connect over the phone. “The scenery, the landscape. There's a sense of freedom in this job. It's so liberating. At the same time, [the industry] can still suck.”
The downside she’s referring to is the famously macho ethos that comes with the trucking industry. Hooks belongs to the six percent of truck drivers in America who are female. She doesn’t sugarcoat how emotionally taxing infiltrating the “boys’ club” can be.
“It's like an initiation out here,” she says. “You're gonna find the strength you never knew you had or didn't even want to tap into. But it’s gonna pull it out of you, man. Trucking's gonna do it.”
Hooks has chosen a famously male-dominated sector of the transportation industry, but women working in everything from trains, to planes, to automobiles are the minority in their workplace. Even the taxi industry, which boasts one of the higher gender balances, is still only 16 percent women. For most of the ladies we spoke with, it’s an unwavering passion for their job that’s kept them motivated to get to where they are now.
Whether it’s the adrenaline of flying a 700,000-pound airplane across the country or riding solo through the Southwest, there’s a sense of both freedom and adventure in this field. The latter is precisely what inspired Hooks to make a career change two years ago.
Prior to kicking off her trucking career, Hooks drove school buses in Arkansas. But the pay wasn’t great and she wanted to see more of the country. She already had most of the requirements needed to make the transition, so she went to trucking school, got a job, and hit the road.
Hooks is resolute in her passion for her job and it’s obvious thatshe’s established a thick skin while doing it, but she admits that truck stops are a place where she still has to proceed with caution. “It's still a sexually charged environment,” she says. “Even though I'm at work and it's a parking lot. It's still there. It's a heavy energy.”
While there, Hooks says she rarely leaves her bunk during the night, even if that means she’s forced to go to the bathroom inside her truck.
“There are people walking around soliciting all types of stuff [at truck stops],” she says. “I just don't feel comfortable. Even though they may have just seen me back in a trailer or whatever, they'll still flash their lights at you, trying to get you to come over to their rig.”
Hooks is adamant that it’s crucial to develop some kind of healthy coping mechanism to stay sane. “Whatever tools that you have, this is a time when you’re going to have to strengthen it,” she says.
She channels moments of calm through yoga. Known as @yoga.trucker on Instagram, she makes a point to practice as much as she can while on the road.
When faced with sexism in the workplace, Hooks says, “I seriously have to use the tools that I've learned in yoga. Just stopping, taking a breath — several breaths — and just staying present in the moment. Listen to the moment and keep going. That's what I do and it helps, and hopefully, it'll help other women.”
In fact, helping other women in the industry has now become a priority for Hooks. In the future, she hopes to teach other female truckers how to practice yoga while on the road. But in the meantime, she’s noticing that her social media presence is beginning to influence others. Hooks says that women will send her messages telling her how she’s inspired them to start a career in trucking. For Hooks, it’s unexpected but welcome feedback.
“It’s like, wait a minute, I'm making you feel confident? This is helping you?” she says. “I just want to see the country and make money doing it. But now I'm helping motivate you? Like, you're actually paying attention? You're actually watching what I'm doing? This is a little bit bigger than just me now.”
LAYING A NEW TRACK
Paula Fraser, 61, admits that she used to wear a gold wedding band to ward away harassment when she drove Bay Area subway trains in the 1980s.
“When my hand would come out the window, all the guys that were hitting on me would think I was married and they would walk away,” she recalls. “It would happen to me all the time. They'd be giving me their business cards and that got a lot of people off my back.”
Fraser is now the assistant chief transportation officer at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the Bay Area’s primary public transport system. She says that making room in her industry for more female representation, and looking out for women colleagues in general, has been her goal throughout her nearly 40-year career.
“We were a very resilient group of women back then,” says Fraser. “We called on each other, stuck with each other. If you weren't assertive or aggressive, you were out within about six months. Back then, men with impunity got away with it more. There weren't as many departments in place that would take care of [sexual harassment], and they knew it.”
A career in trains wasn’t something Fraser always saw for herself, but spend five minutes talking to her and it’s clear that this is exactly where she’s supposed to be. She tells us that since 1980, she’s worked her way up from emergency worker to train operator, tower controller, train controller, and eventually operations control center manager. Every time she moved up, she made a point to leave the door open for another woman to walk through.
“I've always looked for a female mentor, and I've had them,” she says. “Now it's my turn. I got over the wall. I’m going to go back over and reach one or two other women to get over the wall to do this too. I have women coming to my office all the time to do mock interviews, to prepare for their jobs. And if that's a legacy I leave here for other women to do, I think that's important.”
Now, as a key member of BART’s leadership team, Fraser says that the industry has noticeably improved. Not only are women generally more present throughout the company — BART’s staff is currently 24 percent women — but Fraser gives the company’s female staff credit for making the organization’s culture more empathetic.
During her time as a train operator, she points out that she used to have to continue her route after deadly accidents on the tracks. “Today, you're relieved from duty,” Fraser says. “It's not the military. Throughout a lot of the departments, women are the ones creating those kinds of changes.”
TURBULENCE AND TRIUMPHS
Like Fraser, JetBlue pilot Becky Roman-Amador believes that femininity is vital to her industry, although embracing hers has been more of a conscious effort. At the start of her career, Roman-Amador, now 49, admits she feared her male colleagues wouldn’t take her seriously if she dressed too “girly.”
As the only woman in her flight school, Roman-Amador wore slacks, a button-down shirt, no makeup, and her hair in a bun. “It wasn't that the men actually told me that I couldn’t wear nail polish, or lipstick, or a pink lanyard. It's just a feeling that I think any female had back then — and even still today. It was understood that if you wanted to succeed, you couldn't have [your womanhood] be too blatant.”
Over time, Roman-Amador decided to challenge that stigma. Now, she makes a point to embrace all the feminine embellishments she used to hide. “We can still look the way that we look and still do a really damn good job at anything,” she says. “I think it's vitally important that that is what we're showing and telling our young girls. You don't have to be someone else to be good at what you do.”
Currently, just over four percent of pilots in America are female. That’s only gone up about two percent since Roman-Amador started her career 20 years ago. Throughout that time, she’s been fortunate to call most of the men she works with allies.
“My flight instructor was probably the most supportive person besides my parents that I've had in my aviation career. That was the turning point for me. Because, without his belief in me, I don't know if I would have been able to excel the way that I did,” she says. With his support, she began taking three lessons a day and finished flight school in just over a year.
Today, her JetBlue co-pilots are also excited to see her in the cockpit. Her male colleagues will often ask her, “Can I please get a picture with you? I have a five-year-old daughter and I need her to see this.”
Surprisingly, it’s the passengers who seem slow on the uptake. Saying goodbye to passengers after a flight is Roman-Amador’s favorite part of the job, but all too often they don’t even realize she’s the pilot.
“They're literally trying to look over me to look into the cockpit to tell the pilot goodbye and thanks for a great flight,” she says. “They don't even realize the captain's literally standing right in front of them.”
CALCULATING A NEW ROUTE
While Roman-Amador's journey to the cockpit may have taken close to a decade, Natalie Braxton’s Lyft driving career accelerated significantly faster. After moving from New York to California in 2016, Braxton decided to quit her job to prioritize other entrepreneurial projects. Like many of the company’s drivers, she was drawn to the flexibility and freedom of the job. Now, 10 months into it, she’s given over 3,000 rides.
A female Lyft driver, you say? Queue the question she’s been asked a thousand times: Do you feel safe? To that, Braxton responds with an adamant yes, but she credits much of the security she feels to Lyft’s platform specifically.
“The way the algorithm works with Lyft, they pair women drivers with women passengers quite a bit. I'd say that 60 percent of my passengers are female,” she says. “And women just generally feel safer with another woman, period. This cannot be stressed enough as a female driver.”
Braxton also believes giving drivers the ability to rate passengers helps people in her car behave respectfully — for the most part, at least. Out of the 3,000 rides she’s given, she estimates she’s only dished out three stars or below to about 50 people.
“I've had a few guys not think that I am an intelligent person, so they make comments and remarks about things that they didn't think I comprehended,” she recalls. “I have to correct them very quickly and say, ‘I can hear everything you're saying. I'm here in the front seat. It's going to be a disaster for you when I give you two stars and below.’ They get very apologetic very quickly.”
Whether you’re behind the wheel like Braxton or flying in the cockpit, being a woman in transportation requires an impressively thick skin. After so long, the uphill battle has to get exhausting. When we ask all the women what keeps them motivated to do more, the same sentiment is repeated almost every time: It’ll change how the next generation sees themselves and their opportunities.
When she’s not the air, Becky Roman-Amador spends most of her time speaking with young women (and young men) about her career path and encouraging them to stick with their passions – whether they happen to involve a male-dominated industry or not. She remembers when she had that kind of aha! moment in her life.
“I’m only four-foot-eleven and I once saw a young lady who was just barely taller than myself who was a pilot for a cargo company. I realized then that I could actually, physically fly airplanes that are like, 700,000 pounds. When I see little girls, I hope that’s what’s happening to them.”
Inspiring that kind of change hardly ever channels itself into as poignant a moment as Ty Hooks was able to create one recent day on her way back home to Dallas. While driving in her truck, she passed a school bus full of young cheerleaders.
“One girl was looking up and then she tapped on somebody else's shoulder and started pointing at me,” she recalls. “I cried. I didn't think I was gonna cry, but I did. I felt like, at that moment, she was thinking, ‘I can do it too.’ It's like a seed was planted. That was a proud moment for me.”
Written by: Cortney Clift
Design by: San Trieu