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Evolution of gender beliefs examined via ‘truck wife’

MA DAN | 2022-10-13 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Truck driver Mr. Yang and his wife Ms. Miao pose in front of their truck. Photo: TRANSFER FOUNDATION

The main laborers in the road freight transportation industry are self-employed truck drivers who are engaged in mobile and compound work practice. In recent years, the popularity of “husband and wife truckers” has also made the “truck wife” a noteworthy social phenomenon. For many years, in order to ensure efficiency and safety, long-distance trucks were equipped with two drivers, but due to low profitability in the road freight transportation market, self-employed truck drivers often cannot afford to hire another driver, so their wives have to take the place of the second driver. The participation of a “truck wife” triggers a triple transformation in road freight labor: male labor is replaced by female labor, an employment relationship is taken over by a marriage relationship, and paid labor by unpaid labor.

‘Truck wife’ role

On this basis, the role of labor is also quietly altering, revealing the unique gender logic of the road freight industry. The clear-cut role of truck drivers is now being replaced by that of housewives, but their multi-task labor is more often than not simplified as “caring work.” Such gender beliefs are ironed into “truck wives’’ minds and speech, well manifested in their own understanding of their job description as “doing laundry and cooking.” 

However, according to previous studies, there are at least 18 types of labor on the list of truck wives’ job description, including the core labor of driving trucks and looking for sources of goods, comprehensive labor related to freight transportation, and emotional labor of resolving accidents and disputes, as well as assuming their role as long distance mothers. Such extensive and massive labor should not be reduced to “doing laundry and cooking.” What, then, is the logic of the gender beliefs behind women’s invisible labor? Has the practice of non-traditional female labor changed the gender beliefs of truck wives? 

To answer these questions, it is not enough to focus only on the macro evolution of gender belief trends in China, and it is necessary to study the micro mechanism of gender belief change by combining this specific occupation with labor practices.

Gender beliefs

Since the reform and opening up, with the great transformation of society and economy, gender beliefs in China have changed profoundly. Such an evolution of gender concepts represents a complex trend, and the modern concept of gender equality has different effects on different groups, which needs further explanation from an academic perspective, whether theoretical research or empirical research.

There are three important perspectives in theoretical research: the theory of gender socialization, the theory of a gender system, and the theory of gender belief dynamics. Empirical research on changing gender beliefs in foreign countries reached a climax in the 1980s, and the related research in China started in the mid to late 1990s. The existing literature mainly discuss three aspects: the evolutionary trend of gender beliefs, the factors that shape this trend, and the complex relationship between the change of gender beliefs and gender practices. Past studies have laid a solid foundation for further discussions in this regard.

In this context, we need to combine the macro institutional arrangement and micro people-to-people interactions to further promote the in-depth development of related research. To be specific, this article will introduce the evolution of gender beliefs through the labor practices of the road freight transportation industry, focusing on the change of gender beliefs in this particular occupation, and providing an empirical basis and theoretical explanation for the complex overall evolution of gender beliefs in China. 

Inspired by the classification of “abstract workers” and “concrete workers” in the traditional study of gender and labor, this article divides gender beliefs into “abstract gender beliefs” and “concrete gender beliefs” based on field investigation. The former refers to cultural beliefs about gender which function as part of the “unwritten rules of the game” and have persisted for a long time, are relatively stable, and offer general guidance for individuals, while the latter means ideas that are formed in this individual labor practice. With the help of the theoretical paradigm’s transformation, we will demonstrate and analyze the unique labor practices in the road freight industry, and step towards the micro logic of evolution in gender beliefs. In terms of research methods, qualitative research has been implemented, in which the main process for collecting data is to participate in first-hand observation and in-depth interviews.

Gender equality

The change of gender beliefs is not only an important factor for achieving gender equality, but also a necessary step for changing occupational gender segregation. According to Unpacking the Gender System written by American sociologists Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll, gender is one of the fundamental axes of social identity and people rely on widely shared gender stereotypes to coordinate their work tasks and to reduce uncertainty in organizing social encounters. In particular, gender is more salient in mixed-sex settings and also in settings that are more stereotypically masculine or feminine. 

When truck wives enter the road freight industry as an “occupational gender minority,” they are in a social relationship where gender beliefs play a significant role. The road freight industry, which is male-dominated and largely self-employed, not only extends and strengthens the traditional abstract gender beliefs inherent in the socialization process, but also stimulates and forms more modern and equal concrete gender beliefs in their cognitive world. Truck wives’ changing gender beliefs do not follow a unidirectional linear mechanism “from traditional to modern,” but a multilevel circuitous bidirectional dynamic process, which includes multiple superimpositions and a collision of abstract and concrete gender beliefs.

For truck wives, their abstract gender beliefs mainly stem from their origin and family background, growth experience, marriage and childbirth experience, career history, and industry-specific gender consciousness. Most of them come from rural families with many children, and their life experiences often include being forced to drop out of school, early marriage, and early childbearing. All these experiences have left an indelible mark along with the clear “son preference” in the process of their gender socialization, so they are firm believers in the cultural concept of gendered division of labor in the traditional family and of “men driving the car and women taking care of the family.”

Even when they are transformed from caregivers in the private family domain to producers in the public professional setting, their abstract gender beliefs still resonate with the long-standing hegemonic gender beliefs in the male-dominated road freight industry. In other words, traditional gender differences and hierarchy preset their understanding of gender roles. 

Concrete gender beliefs are formed in the context of social relations urgently responding to the terms of labor practice, and then strengthened through daily social interactions, thus unraveling abstract gender beliefs and offering an opportunity for a change in gender beliefs. In the social relations of the self-employed road freight industry, urgent economic demand exceeds the limitations of traditionally gendered division of labor. With the accumulation of work experience and the expansion of the scope of work, truck wives have recognized a different division of labor among genders and new gender roles. Their individual initiative combined with labor practices of non-traditional women fuel more equal and modern concrete gender beliefs.

To be specific, there are three stages in the development of truck wives’ gender beliefs. In the first stage, abstract gender beliefs are a priority and upheld as the main principle of expression and practice. The second stage is the combination of abstract and concrete gender beliefs. Abstract and concrete gender beliefs are mixed to cope with different needs of expression and practice in the new labor practice. Third, concrete gender beliefs take hold as the main principle of expression and practice. It is worth pointing out that the three stages of development do not have clear boundaries; rather, they are complementary to each other and organically work together to create truck wives’ gender beliefs in today’s era.

When asked about female truck drivers and the masculinity of their husbands, truck wives mostly turn to abstract gender beliefs, claiming that women are not suited to be truck drivers and that men are the “breadwinners” in their collaboration. When answering details about the process of freight labor, they continue to declare that women are not suitable for the road freight industry, while inadvertently detailing the content of their labor, filled with individual initiative and the formation of concrete gender beliefs. When they drop their guards and speak freely, truck wives reflexively express their reflection upon and resistance to abstract gender beliefs.

In a nutshell, truck wives are balancing between their roles as the main labor in the road freight industry and their roles as wives and mothers, in which their beliefs are sometimes full of contradictions. The loyalty toward abstract or concrete gender beliefs is dynamic and in constant change, indicating the source of the complex tension between ideals and reality.


The labor practices of truck wives tell us that it is not enough to reduce research on gender beliefs to a psychometric scale measurement of attitudes, or to discuss it in an obscure theoretical context. It is important to measure using macroscopic trends in gender beliefs, but it is also critical to explore the multilevel and dynamic nature of gender beliefs in daily scenarios. Only in this way can we understand why gender beliefs evolve sometimes quickly and sometimes slow, back and forth, with progress and setbacks. 

When we know how pervasive the abstract gender beliefs are, and how they fit into various social structures at different times, we can see why it is so difficult to eliminate these beliefs. When we understand how the urgency of certain occupations and labor practices challenge abstract gender beliefs, we can see this is the time concrete gender beliefs take root. Abstract gender beliefs are the background and foundation, while the emergence and repeated accumulation of concrete gender beliefs are the driving force for the renewal of abstract gender beliefs. Though this process is slow, trivial, fragmentary, and not a grand narrative for modernity, it represents the direction of qualitative change in the sense that women are breaking occupational gender segregation and changing their own and industrial gender beliefs.

It must be noted that the superimposition and collision of abstract and concrete gender beliefs are permanent, as they run through all stages of the life cycle of truck wives. The unique occupational setting and labor practices of the road freight industry make the tension more evident, sufficiently driving a change in gender beliefs. 

At the same time, the abstract and concrete gender beliefs are not equal to traditional and modern gender beliefs. In different social scenarios, the integration of traditional and modern gender beliefs happens at varied degrees. Therefore, when applying this theory to other industries, occupational settings and labor practices must be taken into full consideration.

Ma Dan is from the Institute of Sociology at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.




Edited by YANG XUE