Illustrations by Marlowe Dobbe
Close your eyes and picture a mover. But before you describe what he looks like, hold off just yet.
Nowadays, they might just be a woman.
Women in the moving industry are beginning to grow in numbers. Not in droves – you would easily make a comfortable living betting against a female mover showing up on moving day. But their presence in an extremely male dominated industry is strengthening up and down the industry ladder: owners, managers, yes – clerical workers, and now finally, movers.
As with many markets where the workforce is typically gendered, women are beginning to get hired. And they are coming to move your furniture.
Getting your Money’s Worth
Moving is, for all intents and purposes, an industry seemingly unfit for its own version of Sally Ride or Susan B. Anthony, one might assume.
Yet as women come into the field, it helps to be welcome. History continually shows that with repeated exposure, stereotypes against minority participation fades. The last several decades have shown female populations in male-dominated fields slowly growing to notoriety within comedy, the sciences, professional sports and politics, just to name a few. Recall there was once divided perception of women working within the music industry, the mental health fields, real-estate and on. However, physical labor seems a different beast. Women lifting heavy furniture? Shifting crates and picking up fridges?
“I’ve had a lot of crazy looks.” says Annessa Boyd, a mover working for “A Move Ahead Movers” in Orlando, FL. “They look at the person with me and say, ‘You know that you just brought a girl?’”
Perhaps unlike some of the other, slowly diversifying jobs, the moving industry carries explicit expectations. It’s not a place for expression or personal achievement; People want pragmatic results and peace of mind for their money.
Highlighting this point is that the moving industry is a massive, massive business. Depending on how you operationalize it, national estimates of how big the moving industry is might include the marketshares of laborers, truck companies, insurers, third party marketplaces, equipment makers and much more. A quick Google search places its estimated value anywhere between $14 billion and three times that, calculated mostly from an oft-reported figure by the US census bureau that says Americans move an average of once every four years, and about 12 times in their lifetime.
But this expansive demand that seemingly works against all these moving women is actually the reason they’re showing up in the first place.
Making a Place for Women
Layla Springs is the owner of Blue Box Moving in Atlanta, GA. Three years ago she and her husband were on the verge of a new job and a new life. They were excitedly expecting a child as he had a surefire job in waiting. In preparation, Layla quit her job at a printing company. But then his new job suddenly and quickly fell through, and the two found themselves in desperation.
“We were selling things online to make extra money. (We went) to garage sales, remade things, then sold them.” explains Springs.
Then came a fortuitous meeting that changed everything.
“We went to a yard sale and we met a lady who had so much stuff at a foreclosure. It was a mess. She said ‘If you guys help me get this stuff out before the foreclosure, you can keep whatever you want.’” They jumped on the opportunity.
“We got started delivering things, moving her things out, bringing (things) to people to sell them … and then people started asking us, ‘Hey, can you move us?!’”
The two began their moving experiment on Craigslist. “I think for the whole year we made $2000. (Laughter) For the whole year.”
Then they signed up to become professional movers through HireAHelper. They legitimized their practice and learned new standards in the process. “We were suddenly making in a day what we were making in a week working part time jobs. Now the business is growing, and a lot of that is due to our teamwork.”
Following those early years of doing the lifting, driving and hustling all her own, she helped personally mold her business and is now the field manager for a crop of professional movers. Business is thriving for Layla, and similar stories of women coming into labor jobs are becoming increasingly common across the country.
But now she and others face a new issue. Among the most frequent questions Springs receives from her customers: “How big are your guys? Are you gonna be moving me? Because if so, I’m not sure if this is gonna work.”
Springs expresses concern that she cannot operate her business as easily as her competition. “It’s my business. It makes no sense that I wouldn’t be able to step in.”
After all, she has years of experience. But customer expectations make her job much more difficult.
“If I go sit down in the truck, will they laugh at me? Will they shame me? Will the customer be upset? What would happen if I just sat down?”
This is not an uncommon experience for women within male-driven industries. We spoke with one female professional who preferred to remain anonymous to share her experiences. Her previous job was working as a research analyst for a major metropolitan transit authority in the United States. Now? She has set her two bachelor degrees aside and successfully manages a moving company.
“It’s where the money is.” she says.
Yet despite expertly serving a major population, in conversation, she struggles to narrow down which anecdotes to recount regarding her personal discriminations. She eventually settles on an incident where a customer refused to make eye contact with her, instead referring to her only in the third person while speaking exclusively to her husband in the room. In a second story, she recounts how even drivers she personally employed have turned on her for being female.
“I was talking to a guy about his performance and my husband walks in and he tells (my husband) right in front of me, ‘You need to put your wife in check.’”
It’s All in the Legs
Five years ago, a female firefighter in London, England named Emma Lanman had an idea. Speaking to The Telegraph in 2014,
“People used to get excited when female firefighters turned up because it was kind of novel, they’d be shouting that it’s a lady fireman and stuff like that … So I thought people liked the novelty of women doing ‘men’s jobs’ and when I started to think about it, I realized there were probably quite a lot of people who would feel safer in their home asking women to come in … I thought it might actually be a valuable service.”
Today, “Van Girls” has become a mainstay. Operating out of London, the women of Van Girls have taken on the lampshaded issue of women being physically weaker, and as the saying goes, are laughing all the way to the bank.
Their company consists of all female administrators and movers. Initially marketed to
women seeking women, their positive reviews net them constant jobs by virtually all types of customers. They have had males work for them Lanman explains, but do not directly employ any men.
“People often read our brand name as an employment policy.” says Lanman in an interview with Gadgette. “(T)hey would never assume that a company with ‘Man’ and ‘Van’ in the title could avoid employing a woman, if she met their selection criteria.”
In all these interviews, the recurring theme that hangs over female movers like Lanman is that a woman cannot possibly lift things like a safe, a sofa, or a piano, so why risk it just for the goodwill of being inclusive? Most female professionals bristle at this train of thought.
“I moved 10 pianos last week”, says Boyd. “I’m not really built. I’m 5’5”. (But) I’ve been on hundreds of moves. Those five-star reviews? That’s me on those reviews.
And I have to say its more women than men who give me a hard time.”
While moving takes a very dedicated type of person with a healthy level of physical endurance, what professional female movers consistently report is that most of the heavy lifting is a combination of dollies and good form, not brute strength.
Says one female mover turned administrator, “There is no special consideration for women. If you aren’t strong enough, you are limited. That’s a fact. But if you have the right number of people and everyone knows the proper technique, then there is no issue. It’s about technique.”
Continues Boyd, “There was a 300 pound piece of furniture and a door that was two feet up, and the customer didn’t think I was capable … because he couldn’t even get it off the ground.
After I picked it up and moved it for him he said, ‘If I didn’t see that for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it!’ Yep, girl power.”
Females Moving In?
Many female movers say they’ve grown numb to any cold reactions of their existence. But given the burgeoning demand for moving across the world, don’t expect them to go away anytime soon.
“Moving is an industry that women can do.” suggests to us another anonymous mover administrator. “But moving is not an industry that has an open door for women. A man is more likely to show another man technique. They are more likely to tell a woman, ‘Put that over here.’ or ‘Carry those boxes to the truck.’”
As initially with jobs in the STEM fields and professional sports, much of the practicing population is likely causally related to social norms, not pure ability. But even lacking this being true, Lanman, Springs and others exemplify how the stereotype of physicality being a major inhibitor to joining the workforce is an overblown fear.
There is a massive economic opportunity for women who want to do physical labor. Social norms are the gatekeepers. Some who have forged ahead against negative perception have tapped into that market, and are now thriving.
With all this in mind, predicting the future of the moving industry population is unlikely to suggest an unrecognizable workforce by today’s standards. But the industry may still someday house a sizable minority, provided the slow change in customer perception continues its current trajectory. And beyond that, who knows?
Out of interest to the story, we asked one female administrator who had expressed serious doubt that females could exist in the industry whether she would prefer to hire an extremely strong man or an average sized woman with perfect technique.
“Oh, a woman with perfect technique every time. Some items you do need strength … but perfect technique wins every time.”