Women win seats in workplace elections but remain underrepresented

In May 2008, workplace elections were held throughout the Belgian private sector. During the campaign, trade unions called for female candidates to run, in an effort to increase the representation of women in company elective bodies. Election results show a higher proportion of successful women candidates than four years ago. However, women remain underrepresented in company-level representation bodies, given that the number of employed women has also risen.

Background

Every four years, workplace elections – also known as social elections – are held throughout the Belgian private sector to elect workers’ representatives to serve on company-level information and consultation bodies. Companies employing over 50 workers must hold elections to form a workplace health and safety committee (Comité pour la prévention et protection au travail/Comité voor preventie en bescherming op het werk, CPPT/CPBW), while companies with over 100 employees also need to set up a works council (Conseil d’Entreprise/Ondernemingsraden, CE/OR).

Workers gathered in electoral bodies (BE0309304T) comprise blue-collar workers, white-collar workers and young workers aged under 25 years if their number exceeds 25 persons in the company. These workers choose delegates from lists presented by the three representative trade union organisations and the National Confederation of Managerial Staff (Confédération Nationale des Cadres/Nationale Confederatie voor Kaderleden, CNC/NCK) if at least 15 managers work for the company (see also the Belgian contribution to the EIRO comparative study on Works councils and other workplace employee representation and participation structures). The three main trade unions include the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV), the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB) and the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV).

Trade unions consider that social elections are an important benchmark to assess their strength and representativeness in the social and economic landscape. The participation rate to social elections remains high at about 70% (BE0805019I), although the trade unions have experienced some membership losses in recent years.

More female representatives elected

Results are still incomplete for the social elections held at the beginning of May 2008. Nevertheless, the scores confirm the supremacy of CSC/ACV, which attained 53.6% of the votes for workplace committees and 52.6% for works councils. FGTB/ABVV came second with results of 36.5% and 36.1% respectively, while CGSLB/ACLVB reached 9.9% and 9.7%. Thus, FGTB/ABVV and CGSLB/ACLVB retained their regular electorate.

Throughout the election campaign, all of the three trade unions tried to attract new candidates, focusing particularly on the need to have more women delegates in a bid to increase their representation. Women responded to the trade unions’ call and the proportion of women as candidates and elected representatives increased across all trade unions in comparison with the poll of 2004.

In terms of workplace representation bodies, women are more prevalent in workplace health and safety committees than in works councils. For these committees, the share of candidates rose from 31.9% in 2004 to 33.7% in 2008, while the proportion of elected women increased by 1.7 percentage points over the same period, from 35% in 2004 to 36.7% in 2008. Figure 1 outlines the detailed results of elected female representatives for each participating trade union organisation.

Elected female representatives on workplace health and safety committees, 2004 and 2008 (%)

Elected female representatives on workplace health and safety committees, 2004 and 2008 (%)

Elected female representatives on workplace health and safety committees, 2004 and 2008 (%)

Overall, the proportion of female candidates for works councils also increased from 29.4% in 2004 to 31.4% in 2008, while the share of elected women grew from 31.4% in 2004 to 33.7% in 2008. Figure 2 shows the election results for female representatives on works councils for each participating trade union organisation.

Elected female representatives on works councils, 2004 and 2008 (%)

Elected female representatives on works councils, 2004 and 2008 (%)

Source: Federal Ministry of Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, 2008

Elected female representatives on works councils, 2004 and 2008 (%)

Women remain underrepresented

Nonetheless, female worker representation has failed to increase due to a more sustained growth of female employment in the private sector in the past four years. This accounts for a 10.8% difference between the proportion of women elected to risk prevention committees and the actual share of women in the workforce, increasing to a 13.4% difference for works councils.

The above statistics should be treated with caution since they average results from all companies and economic sectors. In doing so, the diversity of ratios of women to men across sectors and occupations remains unconsidered.

Commentary

Women are still underrepresented in elective positions at work and face other career issues than men. Such challenges include the gender pay gap (BE0803019I), the ‘glass-ceiling’ effect, sectoral and occupational segregation (see also the EIRO comparative study on Gender and career development) – all of which need to be addressed. A greater presence of women in company representative bodies could help at least to launch public debates within companies and yield useful insights on ways to better balance a professional career with family life.

Regarding the presence of women on works councils and committees, trade unions strongly encouraged women to run as candidates in the 2008 elections. Many women, however, tend to doubt their ability to become a delegate or may lack the time to juggle a mandate with their job and family. Moreover, the world of trade unions is still often considered as a man’s world, and both men and women often hesitate to vote for a female candidate.

Emmanuelle Perin, Institute for Labour Studies (IST), Université catholique de Louvain (UCL)

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