When Helen Bland, the late fleet manager at Hallmark Cards, Inc., walked into her first National Association of Fleet Administrators meeting in the late 1960s, she was the only woman in the room. Hardly daunted, she became NAFA’s first woman president in 1985.

Today, some 40 years after Helen and a few other female pioneers took their place among men in fleet, women comprise a significant percentage of the industry at all levels, from managing a one-person, five-vehicle operation to supervising multi-million dollar international fleets for corporate conglomerates that span the world.

What has been their journey in this historically male-dominated fleet industry? What has been — and still is — the experience of women in the traditionally “men’s world” of mechanics, cars, and trucks, particularly in view of the cultural upheaval that has impacted gender roles and relationships over the last several decades? And, more importantly, are there lessons to be learned from examining the status of women in fleet?

60-Plus Women Offer Input

A recent Automotive Fleet research survey attempted to do just that. More than 60 women responded to an e-mail survey that asked simply if they viewed their status as women fleet managers equal to that of male fleet managers, considering such factors as status/rank within their company, attitudes, peer and colleague regard, compensation, and vendor relationships. They were asked to explain inequities they had personally experienced or observed. The women were also questioned about their perceived status, opposed to that of male fleet managers, within the fleet industry at large, at industry conferences, conventions, etc. Respondents could indicate if their remarks were to be kept confidential.

The results were surprisingly mixed — at times heartening, funny, or inspiring, and other times sobering and discomforting. Fully half the responses were positive. These women felt that gender played no role in how they were treated by their company, co-workers, or industry peers.

The remaining half reflected women who perceived unequal treatment based on their sex. Of these women, half registered a combination of positive and negative experiences, while the final group reported perceptions of serious inequalities. According to respondents, a gap in compensation between men and women performing the same job remains a troublesome issue.

Survey respondents represented a broad spectrum of experience and responsibility. The number of years in fleet ranged from three to 30, with an average fleet career of 11 years. They reflected fleets in size from 70 to more than 37,000 and came from both commercial and public sectors. Industry experience didn’t appear to be a factor between those who responded positively and women managers who described negative experiences. The average years’ experience of both groups was roughly the same. {+PAGEBREAK+}

Positive Responses Encouraging
Women who responded positively to the survey were encouraging in their straightforward perception of gender equality in the fleet industry. Many answered simply, “Yes, I am treated equally.”

Kelli Licata, administrator for the New York Power Authority’s 260-unit fleet, said her status was “very equal. The thought has never crossed my mind when networking with others. My peers are equally male and female in number.”

For Leanne Borgen, contract coordinator for Duke University/Duke University Health System in Durham, N.C., the status of women in fleet is unequivocally positive: “In the fleet arena, all things are equal!”

A six-year industry veteran who manages a 10,000-plus-vehicle fleet on the East Coast reported “I have never felt that I was treated any differently than men in the same position by any of my peers, suppliers, industry experts, etc. Based on my experience, I would say, happily, that this [gender inequity] is a thing of the past.”

Donna Bibbo, CAFM, manager of purchasing, fleet, and travel for Amersham Biosciences Corp., in Piscataway, N.J., believes she is considered the equal of other mid-level managers in the company. “I am certainly considered an expert in the different areas for which I am accountable. I am accorded a high level of respect for my knowledge and abilities.”

In managing the U.S. and Canadian fleets for the Gillette Company, the international consumer products provider, Paula Antonelli has found that she is not “perceived any differently than fleet managers from other countries. I have been on global teams, and I feel we are treated the same. Our team leaders respect and acknowledge your knowledge level, opinions, and feedback.”

Things Have Changed
A few women satisfied with their status in fleet today nonetheless acknowledge that in the past, the situation was very different.

Laurie McGinn, manager of administrative services for the Halton Regional Police Services in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, works “in a job that is perceived as male-oriented, but also in an organization that is overall male-dominated, particularly at the senior level.” She is unaware, however, of “any differences” in the way she is treated.

“But,” McGinn states, “I think I had to prove myself when I started. I have been in my position for 14 years, and I certainly would have responded quite differently 10-14 years ago. I do now see clearly that with very few exceptions, my peers, organization, and suppliers overwhelmingly respond in kind — to professionalism and an ability to do the job — rather than gender.”

A 24-year fleet veteran and vice-president of ABM Industries, headquartered in San Francisco, Ellie Walsh believes “my length of service with ABM (35 years) has a lot to do” with her equitable treatment. “When I first entered the ‘world of fleet,’ women were an inconvenience to the men already established in the industry. But now, I feel the vendors really treat us as equals. They even play golf with us now!”

Vendors Cited for Misconceptions
Among survey respondents who reported mixed experiences, many said that while their companies treat employees equitably, vendors often respond to female managers with preconceived perceptions.

“The status within my organization is great,” says Marilyn Rawlings, fleet manager for Lee County, Florida’s 1,400-vehicle fleet for the past 10 years. “However, many vendors still ask to speak with the ‘man in charge.’”

Stereotypes about women are “still alive and well,” comments Rawlings. “I have had vendors explain the difference between a half-ton and three-quarter-ton pickup, and other fleet managers explain that Valvoline is an oil company. For the most part, people treat me as they would anyone else. If I don’t act as if there is a difference, there won’t be one.”

Tammy Karr, fleet manager for Iowa Glass Depot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, found similar stereotypes. “Within my organization, I am treated equally. However when it comes to vendors, it can be a different story. Many a maintenance vendor has lost our business from treating me as incompetent. It is amazing how blatant they can be about it!”

Another woman, with 11 years experience in management, recalls, “The only resistance was from vendors, who first had to call my male boss to check on my decision-making authority. One vendor, in particular, even became confrontational during a bid process, and I felt he would not have done the same for a male fleet manager.”

The same assumptions could be found at some industry gatherings, according to a few women. In most cases, the woman was automatically assumed to be the spouse or secretary of a male colleague.

Still other respondents decry the existence of the “good old boy” network, while noting that same could be said of other industries in the U.S. Susan Miller, senior fleet manager for McDonald’s Corporation has always been treated fairly and with respect “by my male colleagues, both peers and vendors… However, I perceive that the good ole’ boy network is alive and well — as it is most everywhere [and] that will never change.”
“In my opinion,” the 25-year fleet veteran continued, “women are less likely to make deals over or during extra-curricular activities, because they generally do not participate (when invited) or are not there when deals are made (late nights at the bar, etc.) However, I also feel that professional female fleet managers do not require that type of environment to conduct business, and in fact, strive to maintain their reputation as respected businesswomen.”

Miller concludes, “The bottom line, I personally choose to not allow any real or perceived inequity in my status to affect my job performance for my company or in maintaining my self-respect.”

Annette Spitsbergen, who manages the state of Wyoming’s 900-vehicle fleet, shares a similar view. “I still find that the ‘guys’ would prefer to discuss matters among themselves and not sure how the ‘female’ ideas are perceived. It is a constant job to prove myself as a female in a male-dominant field, but I enjoy the challenge and wouldn’t want to do anything else.” {+PAGEBREAK+}

Pay Inequity Remains an Issue
The gap in salary between women and men holding the same job, with identical responsibilities, remains an issue in the American workplace. Government statistics, as recently as 2002, reveal that women receive 76 percent of the salary men earn for performing the same job. (U.S. Women’s Bureau and the National Committee on Pay Equity.)

Female fleet managers experience the same gap. A significant number of survey respondents (10 percent) cited personal experience or observations of pay inequity between the genders. Automotive Fleet’s most recent biennial salary survey (May 2003) lends credibility to their claims. According to the salary survey, male fleet managers consistently earn higher wages than their female counterparts with the same years of experience (see chart).

A 27-year fleet veteran who works for a Southwestern municipal fleet of 9,000-plus units, flatly states, “There are male departmental fleet managers who are at a higher rank or pay grade than I am. There is some disparity in compensation between males and females at the same pay grade and job title.”

Still, she feels, “my experience and knowledge help offset attitudes and improve the regard of colleagues and peers.”

“I honestly feel that while I’m treated fairly well by my colleagues, that if a male was in this role, he definitely would be paid higher and with perhaps more room for advancement,” comments another female fleet manager with 20 years’ industry experience.

In noting less compensation than other managerial positions within their companies, a few women observed that fleet operations weren’t valued as highly as other functions. “If I were a man, I do believe my employer would take a more active interest in fleet operations and hold it in higher regard for its apparent benefits,” claims one woman who works for tobacco products company in the Southeast.

Claims of Inequality Still Surface
Blatant gender-based inequalities in the workplace may be less common in this age of sex discrimination litigation, however, several women in the survey report unfair treatment based on their sex.

“Inequities exist because women in my company have to beg for every raise or promotion,” says a fleet operations specialist with seven years of experience. Based on her experience with other positions in the company, she feels, “If I were a man, I would have been given the title of fleet manager, but because I am a woman, they hesitate to give me the title, although I already do the work.”

Two women found that a change in management or corporate structure had serious repercussions in workplace environments that previously had been supportive and gender-equal. One woman who works for an energy supplier tells of several lost years of bonus and stock option incentives when her male supervisor and advocate retired, and a promised title change was waylaid during a subsequent corporate merger. For the next three years, her new supervisor and the human resources manager (both male) did little to complete the title change request. The woman consulted an attorney who verified the validity of her grievances, but cautioned, “You’d win the case, but be prepared to lose your job.”

“I’m passionate about my work,” the woman says. “So I stayed and just kept pushing and pushing human resources and other management in the company.” Eventually, her rank was improved, although she is “100 percent positive a male in this position would not have faced these challenges.”

In what was the survey’s most direct example of unfair treatment, another woman whose positive work environment changed dramatically following a management switch reports that the subsequent supervisor “admitted straight out he had treated me unfairly because I was a woman.” The 12-year fleet veteran documented the statement, but has moved on to another position within the company. {+PAGEBREAK+}

What Can Be Concluded?
From the survey responses, it is evident that at least the perception of, and at most actual instances, of unequal treatment toward women remain in certain sectors of fleet. But what’s equally evident is that many women work hard to overcome misconceptions and forge their own path to gaining deserved professional respect and validation.

The manager of fleet services for a Canadian municipality with a 1,200-unit fleet describes her situation: “In trying to push new ideas, I find that if the information is coming from the staff position below me, a male, it is more readily received than if it came from me. I use this as a technique with the groups that are more difficult to change. It shouldn’t have to be, but you work with what you have.”

The fleet manager for an international service provider in the South explains her approach. “In either vendor or company settings, how a woman conducts herself often leads to how she is treated. I have seen this in this industry. I downplayed my gender, used it to form close relationships (as a daughter/sister figure), and acted professionally at all times. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I am still surprised at the level of respect and professionalism I have experienced. I love my company and intend to retire here.”

Still another female manager enjoys a “high level of respect,” yet believes “a woman is often not seen as an equal.” She explains, “For example, after researching biodiesel as an alternative vehicle fuel, many men would feel convinced of its benefits and challenges. Yet if a woman presented the same research, it is met with a high degree of skepticism. I can either fight this attitude/culture, or learn how to work within it. I choose the latter. I find the men who have organizational respect and work with them to disseminate the information to others.”

“I gained respect and a management position by taking the time to educate upper management on the vast requirements to run our fleet and my level of expertise,” says a female fleet manager in Pennsylvania.

With 22 years experience in fleet, working her way up the managerial ladder, a woman manager in a Southern municipality chooses to disregard initial misassumptions and some downright “insulting” experiences. “The people who work with me know my capabilities, know my expertise. When a new person comes along, it doesn’t take long until they recognize that I know my stuff! I’m very comfortable with my accomplishments and my knowledge. I don’t have to prove anything or show my authority in those situations.”

Many survey participants view unequal gender treatment a product of particular corporate, managerial, or geographic cultures. “I think these issues vary greatly from company to company due to variances of toleration and diversity,” said one woman.

Survey respondents describe the value of networking with other women in fleet, recognizing the support they get through sharing experiences and knowledge, particularly as the numbers of women in the industry climb.

A common thread through most survey responses is that experience, knowledge, and a professional attitude are powerful tools in altering attitudes, behaviors, and cultures.

Jan Faries’ response summarizes what many women in the survey feel. The operations manager for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company with 15 years of experience says, “My reputation as a professional within the company and industry was something I have worked to attain through the years. I am very proud of my accomplishments both personally and for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco throughout my career. To me, the way my status is viewed by others is based on how well I project myself and sell myself to others in a professional environment. If you know your stuff, then others will see you know it without you telling them. Attitude toward yourself and others, I believe is the key. Self confidence is something we build, not something we are given.”