Women in trade unions

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In 2002, women remain under-represented in leadership positions in Belgian trade unions, and among members of employee representative bodies. The reasons most frequently advanced for this state of affairs are family responsibilities and social constraints. Female trade unionists are increasingly demanding better representation, particularly in decision-making roles, and the main unions are now seeking to change their attitudes and increase awareness among women workers..

On 8 March 2002, on International Women's Day, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) published a brochure entitled 'Women and militancy. Actions and perspectives' ('Femmes et militance. Actes et perspectives'). Among other facts, it stated that 713,842 of CSC/ACV's 1,500,595 members are women. On 21 March, the Belgian Open Door Group for Working Women's Emancipation (Groupement belge de la Porte ouverte pour l'émancipation économique de la travailleuse) organised a conference on 'Women in trade union life'. The same issue – the fact that Belgium's main trade unions are extremely male-dominated, particularly in their decision-making bodies – was addressed in each case.


The influence of history is largely at the root of this phenomenon. According to commentators, an analysis of women's trade union militancy cannot be separated from an analysis of such factors as attitudes, the role accorded to women in the working environment, part-time working, family responsibilities and equal pay. A recent study ('Femmes et militance: la porte étroite du militantisme féminin avant 1914'[Women and militancy: the narrow doorway to women's militancy before 1914] Éliane Gubin and Valérie Piette, in Militantisme et militants[Militancy and militants], J Gotovitch and A Morelli, EVO, Brussels, 2000) describes how women long played a secondary role in working-class militancy. Initially, women tailored their actions to the existing (ie male) model. Their militancy mainly developed in sectors with a predominantly female workforce before gaining a hold in other sectors. However, the Fabrique nationale strike of 1966, over equal pay for equal work, was a turning-point in the history of female militancy: the event forced trade unions to consider women's place in trade unions, and the need to review forms of militancy.

Low representation in decision-making bodies

In practice, although there is a tendency for the number of women union members to rise, the same cannot be said of their representation on union decision-making bodies, as indicated by the following facts:

  • women account for 47.6% of the CSC/AVC membership, but for only one in three workplace union delegates and one in six full-time officials. Their representation falls away as one goes up the hierarchy: for example, of the eight members of staff on the CSC/ACV board which deals with everyday matters, only one is a woman;
  • in the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV), women form half of the total membership of 1.2 million. However, after the workplace 'social elections' of 2000 (BE0006316F), they account for 25% of FGTB/ABVV representatives on works council s (conseils d'entreprise/ondernemingsraden) in the market sector and 49% in the non-market sector. At the very top of the union, only two of the federal secretariat's seven members are women; and
  • the 250,000-strong Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB) estimates that 40% of its members are women. In its national bureau, there are two women and three men, while the president's bureau is made up of the president and three staff members, two of whom are women. Three out of 11 national officers are women, and in local coordination offices three of the 21 full-time regional officials are women.

Parity between men and women in trade unions is still a long way off. This is also confirmed by women's representation on works councils and committees for prevention and protection at the workplace (comités pour la prévention et protection au travail/comités voor preventie en bescherming op het werk) - as shown by the table below.

Women's representation of employee representative bodies, 1995 and 2000 elections
. No. of women representatives elected in 1995 % of all representatives elected in 1995 No. of women representatives elected in 2000 % of all representatives elected in 2000
Works councils
Market sector 3,026 22.4 % 3,541 24.1 %
Non-market sector 2,127 48.4 % 2,151 51.4 %
Total 5,153 28.8 % 5,692 30.1 %
Committees for prevention and protection at the workplace
Market sector 4,675 26.3 % 5,011 26.5 %
Non-market sector 3,197 51.0 % 3,468 54.0 %
Total 7,872 32.7 % 8,479 34.4 %

Source: Federal Ministry of Employment and Labour, 'Résultats des élections sociales 2000' (Results of social elections 2000), January 2001.

The table clearly shows the high incidence of female representatives in the non-market sector. The statistics moved in favour of women between 1995 and 2000, but progress has been slow. Moreover, the results do not reflect the proportion of women and men in employment. In its opinion No. 26 of 10 December 1999, the Council for Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (Conseil de l'égalité des chances entre hommes et femmes/Raad van de gelijke kansen voor mannen en vrouwen) stated that 'the percentage of female candidates and elected representatives was substantially lower than the proportions of women workers in enterprises. Although women represented 40% of people registered to vote in social elections in 1995, they accounted for only 30.3% of candidates and 32.7% of elected representatives.'

Challenges and perspectives

The three main trade union confederations are striving to ensure that women are better represented at the various decision-making levels. Ways of achieving this mainly involve raising awareness among women workers - the issue is considered all the more important as women are most likely to be affected by issues such as low pay, problems over promotion and part-time working. The development of structures for looking after very young children is similarly on the agenda, and there is also the matter of giving women workers training in union militancy. In some unions, consideration has been given to whether there should be quotas.

However, access to leadership positions in the trade union movement is greatly hindered by family responsibilities. 'The fact that there are not more women occupying national and regional positions,' commented Nelly Brisbois, a national officer at CGSLB/ACLVB, 'is largely down to family responsibilities. Attitudes are slowly changing, but it has not yet been possible to share family responsibilities equitably.'


Drawing a picture of the trade union movement in terms of women's involvement is no easy task: there are few figures, and information is not always accessible (or else it does not exist) because there are no statistics broken down by gender. This is where the new Institute for Equality between Men and Women (Institut de l'égalité des femmes et des hommes/Instituut van de Gelijkheid van Vrouwen en Mannen) – recently proposed in a bill by the Employment and Labour Minister, Laurette Onkelinx (BE0201196F) – would serve a useful purpose. The Institute's tasks would include carrying out studies pertinent to its mission, and proposing instruments for the establishment of gender-differentiated statistics.

It is also clear that a more balanced distribution of family responsibilities is essential if women activists are to be enabled to take up positions of responsibility in trade unions. This will involve a change in attitude from both men and women. Lastly, the use of quotas can be a double-edged sword because parity de jure does not necessarily lead to parity de facto. (Baudouin Massart, TESA-VUB)

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