To celebrate International Women’s Day, we caught up with South Wales Performance Leader Emma Bittel.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Emma, can you tell me about your role at the AA?
I’ve worked at the AA now for nearly five years. I’m a Performance Leader, have been since June 2018, managing recovery patrols who work from our Cardiff and Swansea recovery depots. Up until 2017, I was a recovery patrol based in Bristol.
Do you enjoy being a Performance Leader?
Oh, I love it. Absolutely love it. Every day is different. There’s always challenges with keeping trucks on the road and other things that are happening in the business. It’s such a fast-moving role in the sense of you just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
You’ve mentioned that you started as a recovery driver, what made you want to work at the AA?
In 2015, I broke down in a DHL van and was picked up by a Bracknell patrol (who still works at the AA) and we got chatting. He said, “Why don’t you join the AA?” I was sitting in this nice big clean truck and he was looking nice and relaxed. I was like, you don’t get this driving agency trucks, so let’s give it a whirl!
Have you always been a driver and had that type of role or have you worked in other areas?
I’m actually a trained nurse. I did a nursing degree in South Africa, it’s very different from working in hospitals in the UK. I decided after four years of training, I’d had enough.
I remember having a conversation with my Dad, he asked ‘What are you going to do with your life now?’ For a joke, I said that I think I’ll be a truck driver. His response – women can’t drive lorries! So, I said, okay Dad, if I pass you pay, three months later I passed, and he paid. He’s never challenged me since.
I went on to drive trucks and buses. I also did lots of agency driving and never really found my place. Then I got in at the AA and haven’t looked back, finally found my professional home.
Starting a new role in a new business can be quite daunting, how did it feel for you entering a heavily male-dominated world?
When I first started, all the patrols at the yard wanted to know if I could drive a truck. I won brownie points when the patrol I first went out with said I was really good, it helped me to earn the respect of the other recovery patrols.
When arriving on jobs I would often hear the shock from members when I climbed out the truck. They would say “oh my god it’s a lady driver”, and I would say “I’m not a lady, I’m Emma.” Sort of making a joke, only with those you could make a joke with.
It’s great that you can make light of this with members, but have you ever had any negative encounters when turning up to jobs?
I had one situation. It was a man whose pride and joy Jaguar XF had a puncture on the motorway.
I turned up, as soon as I got out I started dropping the bed, he said “I don’t want you here.” I questioned him, and he said I don’t want you loading my vehicle. So, I started putting the bed back, he asked what I was doing? I said I don’t want to be stood at the side of the motorway.
I told him that I could load him onto the truck, get him to the next services for someone else to pick him up. He agreed, I loaded the vehicle and we started off on our journey. Twenty minutes in, I was coming up to the next junction with the services. So, I asked him what he would like me to do, he said that he would really like for me to take him home.
I got him home and he apologized for being sexist. Admitting that it was the wrong thing to be and he could see that women are just as capable as men doing exactly the same job.
Have you ever experienced a similar reaction from a female when you’ve turned up at a breakdown?
No, I haven’t. They’ve always been really pleased, especially at night and they are on their own. When you turn up to them at two o’clock in the morning, they always go, “thank God it’s a woman”. They feel a lot more secure that they’d been picked up by a female patrol.
Do you ever encourage women that you’ve picked up to join the AA, to become an RSS or recovery patrol?
Yes, there’s been a few times I’ve had young women saying I’d love to do this job. They ask you to describe it and all I can see is it’s the coolest job in the world. You get to drive around in a nice clean truck, you go around picking up lovely people. You don’t know where you’re going next. You don’t know what kind of situation you get yourself into. And they really buy into it.
Have you ever experienced from your colleagues, when you started you became a performance leader any kind of bias towards you being a woman and coming into this role?
Not so much within recovery, but with RSS. They’d never had female patrols working in West Wales, so to suddenly have a female performance leader, I think they were kind of taken aback.
Over time we developed a positive working relationship together. Being from a recovery background, I lacked the mechanical knowledge of the RSS world so may not have been as helpful from a technical point of view, but I could support them in other ways. I spoke to them on a level and treated them as my equal, something they appreciated.
Would you encourage other female patrols, to think about becoming a Performance Leader?
I really would. It’s a great place to start as a manager, you have the support and guidance of other managers to help you progress in your career. Allowing you to move into other areas of the AA with confidence to develop within that role. It’s not about the company developing you, you are developing the company by having women managers at the AA. We need more of us and I would encourage anyone to take that next step and develop.
Emma thanks for sharing your experiences with us today.