Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Women drivers

A recent study carried out by researchers in Warwick, UK and Georgia, USA (reported here in the Telegraph) has found that in areas where men are perceived to have a natural advantage, such as in carrying out spatial tasks like parking and map-reading, lack of confidence will make women worse at those tasks. Basically, if you tell women they are rubbish at parking, they will be.

I would actually take this one stage further. I think that if you tell women that they are rubbish at parking, not only are you making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but you are also inextricably linking incompetence in spatial tasks with femininity. This means that not only are you making it more likely that they won't be very good at parking their cars, but also you are saying that if they are good at parking their cars they are not proper women!

On several occasions when out driving lorries, women have said to me, "Oh, I couldn't drive that thing, I've got no spatial awareness". What they are really saying to me is, "I couldn't drive that thing, I'm a proper woman." The fact is, if I asked those women if they could organise their cupboards so that they can see and reach all the things they want to see they would say yes. If I observed them in a supermarket manoeuvring their shopping trolley round several stationary trolleys so that they could get to the deli counter in front of the woman with the 3 screaming children in tow without it looking like they were racing, I'm sure I would be impressed with those same spatial skills that they claim not to have. These examples may sound horribly stereotypical but it is in stereotypes that we are dealing when talking about women drivers. The fact is, women carry out complex spatial tasks all day every day. There is just something about driving that we are told is man's work.

Having said that, it is precisely because of the association of driving with men that makes it such a good area to work in when trying to challenge these stereotypes. Every time somebody of either sex sees me or any other woman successfully manoeuvre an articulated lorry into position it's just another little nail in the coffin of these outmoded ideas.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A post about post

Have you ever wondered how post moves around? How a letter that is posted first class down here in Dorset can arrive at my grandparent's on the West coast of North Wales the following day? It isn't magic. And it isn't one person getting in a van and taking it the whole way there. It involves an impressive network of vehicles and buildings of different sizes from a bloke on a bicycle (although I think health and safety considerations have done away with those, the bicycles, not the blokes) at a village post office to an articulated lorry coming out of a distribution centre the size of that same village.

That one letter goes from post box to van to delivery office to small lorry to mail centre to big lorry to distribution centre and then back down the sizes in another big lorry to another mail centre and then back out to another delivery office and a delivery person in a van to my grandparent's front door. It is a curve of increasing and then decreasing vehicle and warehouse size. The curve reaches its zenith at the National Distribution Centre (NDC) at junction 18 of the M1 in the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT). Here thousands of articulated lorries every day dock at 100 loading bays, each unloading up to 90 trolleys full of post.

And it works surprisingly well. NDC is an easy place to go to, it is a really big site and it generally moves freely, even at busy times. There is plenty of space to manoeuvre your lorry onto the bay and as a result it is a fairly relaxed place to go as no one feels under pressure. The same cannot be said for the smaller distribution centres. SWDC - South West - is at Avonmouth just North of Bristol. The people are friendly and it is not that busy so, although the manoeuvring space is a bit tight, it is still generally ok to visit. PRDC - Princess Royal - just off the North Circular near the junction with the A40 in NW London is not. It is cramped into its location both inside and outside and for some bizarre reason, the unloading bays are after the loading bays which means that as you wait in a queue for a free bay to unload, you block access to the bays for loading. Loading happens on a tight schedule - you have a time slot so if you are stuck in a queue waiting to get to your bay and are late onto the bay, you throw the schedule out for the rest of the night. This means you have to push in which winds people up (although they all know the problem, but there is etiquette regarding how you go about pushing in and transgressing this etiquette is what winds people up) and then you have to manoeuvre your truck onto the bay in a much restricted space. But somehow, it still works.

You will very rarely see a Royal Mail truck parked up in a layby and even more rarely in a service station because breaks are taken on Royal Mail property. Post is always on the move so there is no point in it sitting in a truck for 10 hours while the driver sleeps. The trucks are generally in use for two shifts in any 24 hour period and drivers never sleep out in their trucks unless snow or breakdowns cause them to have to. All the duties, while some are well over 12 hours, return to base at the end.

So there it is. The logistics of post. Royal Mail is a lovely company to work for - the trucks are well maintained, the transport office is staffed by at least 2 people 24 hours a day, you are given time to do your vehicle checks and nobody expects you to exceed tacho hours. But all these things make a company less profitable. I just hope it continues.