The feminisation of trade unions is percolating to the upper echelons. But organisational cultures still work against women taking leading roles.
This has been a pivotal year for women’s representation in British trade unions, with the successive elections of Christina McAnea and Sharon Graham as general secretaries of Unison and Unite—the two largest British unions. Other women had paved the way, such as Frances O’Grady, elected head of the Trades Union Congress in 2013, and long-serving women union leaders in feminised professional unions in education or health.
These achievements are to be celebrated. The rise in the proportion of trade union members among UK employees since 2017 has been driven by female membership, at 27.2 per cent in 2020 (20.2 per cent for men), while many unions have made progress in achieving proportionality on their ruling bodies. These outcomes are a result of long-standing equality and diversity policies and the tireless work of some women leaders or equality officers, though with male leaders who have selected and mentored women to rise in responsibility also playing a key role.
This ‘feminisation from the top’ hides, however, the continuing difficulties many women encounter in their journey within the trade union movement. Some traditionally male-dominated unions are still struggling to advance equality and diversity—including the GMB, which was the subject of an independent report describing it as ‘institutionally sexist’ in 2020.
Graham’s election as head of Unite took place amid a smear campaign of ‘disgraceful’ online abuse, including disparaging mocked-up pictures, associated with her refusal to stand aside for two more prominent male rivals. And she managed to get elected without the backing of any regional secretary, challenging the internal system of co-option.
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Our research has shown that access to union leadership roles continues indeed to depend on informal detection and selection mechanisms and the support of mentors (often senior white men), who open the door to leadership positions and provide related advice. This peer support is even more significant as formal leadership training is rare within trade unions and there is little offsetting women-only education.
Moreover, the decentralisation and democratic nature of unions leaves autonomy to local and intermediate leaders as to whether to implement equality policies, sometimes hindering the progress of women at middling leadership levels. The feminisation of trade unions therefore takes place in ‘sandwich mode’—from the top of the structures, strongly affected by national equality policies, and from the base of the membership, supported by the massive entry of women into the labour market over the last 30 years.
While female membership is growing, women’s union participation is characterised by a vertical and horizontal gender segregation. Women are under-represented as full-time shop stewards and regional officers and in certain prominent roles, such as full-time negotiators—retained by older (white) men who are not willing to give up their position or who cannot progress in their union career or find a job outside the movement. The internal labour market in British trade unions is characterised by low turnover, which hinders the renewal and diversification of leaders.
The Unite election reminds us that trade unions are contested organisations. At certain times, strong internal rivalries between political factions may weaken leaders’ careers and facilitate the renewing of leadership teams, opening unexpected opportunities for women.
Graham refused to engage in talks to agree a left-wing unity candidate and ran as a reformer, emphasising that Unite needed to return to the workplace and focus on delivering for its members. She even claimed that the union movement had reached a ‘crisis point’ and that a non-established figure was needed to return Unite to its main cause of representing workers and end its ‘obsession’ with the Labour Party.
This reference to a crisis situation justifying the advent of an atypical leader—a woman—is however evocative of the ‘glass cliff’: women are more likely than men to be elevated into leadership during a downturn or crisis, when the risk of failure is highest. They face an eventual backlash when they reach the upper levels of leadership without the necessary political backing or peer networks, and perhaps experience.
Besides, these exceptional opportunities do not come without an often-exorbitant cost for women, especially mothers. As leaders they must conform to the persistent masculine norms of union careers, notably long hours and high geographical mobility. Because of their family responsibilities, women generally struggle more than men to meet these obligations, although some have the support of partners and family.
These constraints are well known within unions, which have long tried to help with childcare or promote family-friendly meeting times. The difficulties of combining union and private lives are however exacerbated today in feminised professions, and in particular public services, by staff shortages, management pressures, lack of facility time for union representatives and sometimes victimisation, which makes participation even more complicated.
Research has pointed to the centrality of women’s agency in the union context—how women negotiate the barriers and constraints, how they seek to challenge gendered cultures and masculine practices and what resources and strategies might help them, including job qualification and feminist orientations. Most British women union leaders have special characteristics. Coming from (white) working-class backgrounds, they were often politically trained in their families or through participation in major strikes and political groups, and often went back to university or attended major TUC training courses to acquire the technical or managerial skills needed for a trade union career. While they sometimes had low-paid part-time jobs, they were able to become full-time union stewards/officers at a fairly young age and were able to build legitimacy internally, thanks to their ability to confront tough employers or take on new roles, such as organising or equality duties.
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While many of them brought feminist awareness and demands into their unions, they have often chosen to ‘neutralise their gender’ to align themselves with the dominant class discourse of their union. While they have lifted other women as they rose, they have not always succeeded in challenging the structural and cultural barriers that many women—especially those who are black and minority-ethnic and low-paid—face to effective participation in unions. In addition, the effectiveness of unions’ equality and diversity policies is hampered today by the erosion of employment conditions and union rights in the public sector, as well as the weak union presence and rights in the private sector, and the fact that many low-paid (especially BAME) women are likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
For all these reasons, one may wonder whether highlighting the election of exceptional women leaders is to fail to see the wood for the trees—giving the impression that equality has arrived when the conditions for trade union participation by many women are far from being met, in the UK and elsewhere.