LANGLEY — The semi-truck rumbles forward as Sophia Athanas smoothly shifts through several gears in quick succession.
Taking advantage of a gap in traffic, she makes a right turn onto 56th Avenue, watching her side-view mirror to ensure her 53-foot trailer clears the curb. Then, she’s shifting up again, cruising through a busy industrial area on the Langley-Abbotsford border with the wind from an open window blowing through her long, blond hair.
It’s tempting to label Athanas a “queen of the road,” or, at the very least, a woman making inroads in a male-dominated industry. After all, she’s an attractive young woman at the wheel of a big rig. But, for the Maple Ridge mom, trucking is all about finding a stable, well-paying job, so she can provide for her two sons, ages eight and 18 months. The fact that she’s challenging stereotypes about women’s work is secondary.
“I just want all the women out there to know that if you want to get into this, you can,” she said Friday in an interview at Valley Driving School, where she’s completing her training after recently passing her Class 1 driver’s test.
Athanas decided to become a truck driver after her second maternity leave ended a few months ago.
“In the past I’d worked as a server, but I wanted to find something that paid a little more,” she explained. “Serving is tough. You work nights, weekends, holidays. I’ve always liked driving, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
When signing-up for driving school, Athanas learned about the YWCA‘s Changing Gears program, which receives funding from both the federal and provincial governments to increase the number of women in B.C.’s trucking industry.
It’s estimated about three per cent of Canadian truckers are women, said program manager Tina Hurd, who believes the reason is largely due to the male-dominated trucking culture.
“Any-size person can do this job,” she said. “With technology, being a truck driver doesn’t require heavy lifting. It’s really a job anyone can do.”
The free, 23-week Changing Gears program is open to women on employment insurance (or returning from mat leave) and incorporates on-the-road practise, as well as self-defence, and health and safety training. Partnerships with several local trucking companies help grads find work with supportive employers in an industry that’s always looking for drivers. Six women received their Class 1 licences after the program’s first run in September. Nine women, including Athanas, were accepted for the second intake and are in various stages of getting their licences.
When asked about the toughest part of driving a big truck, Athanas didn’t hesitate: “Backing-up,” she said, adding she was very nervous on her first day of the program. “I told my son I was scared. I wanted to show him that as an adult we can be afraid, but we have to push through.”
As she nears the end of the program, Athanas said she feels empowered: “I think that if you challenge yourself, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.”