More women elected to representative positions in unions

The 1998 Labour Force Survey showed an increase in trade union membership amongst women in the UK. Research indicates that the number of women members elected as trade union representatives is also growing but at a much slower pace. This feature reviews the issues and stresses the significance of union structures which facilitate women's election to representative positions - an issue highlighted by the European Trade Union Confederation in July 1999.

Much comment has been passed on the changing gender composition of trade union membership in the UK (UK9712184F) and recent membership figures underline these trends. The 1998 Labour Force Survey indicated that union membership amongst women had increased by 60,000 on the previous year. Union density amongst women in the UK has stabilised at 28%, and women make up almost 39% of the UK's total union membership.

Less attention has been paid to the number of women elected as trade union representatives. In 1990, women members made up 72% of the membership of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), but only 28% of the national executive committee were women. In the same year, 62% of Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) members were women, but only 31% of members of the national executive committee were women. This disparity between the gender of constituents and of their representatives was mirrored across most trade unions, and the lack of women in policy-making committees was seen as a key factor in a dominance of male interests on collective bargaining agendas.

However, over the course of the past decade, union executive committees have become more representative. Figures for 1998 show that: 75% of NUT members and 43% of the national executive were women; and 59% of USDAW members and 53% of the national executive were women. Increases in the number of women representatives in total, and in relation to their male colleagues, can be seen in a number of UK unions. This change reflects the endeavours of trade unions to alter their internal structures and procedures so that more women can participate in union activities (Inching extremely slowly towards equality, SERTUC Women's Rights Committee, 1997).

Union strategies for boosting women's representation

Past research indicated that women's involvement in union activity was constrained by women's heavy domestic commitments, by men's dominance of union meetings and by union rules which took little account of women's different experience of work. However, today: most unions provide childcare for members taking children with them to conferences, courses and meetings; many unions provide facilities for women to determine their own interests in women-only groups; and a number of unions have changed their constitutions so that committee seats are reserved for women. The last-named strategy is of particular interest given the action plan for European women trade unionists adopted by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in July 1999 (EU9907182F). Member organisations of ETUC are to draw up specific proposals to ensure that women are properly represented in collective bargaining and decision-making bodies.

The following examples show how rule-book changes can increase the number of women representatives at senior decision-making levels.

  • The UNISON public services union, the UK's largest, with 72% female membership, is committed to ensuring that, by 2000, representatives will reflect the gender of their constituencies. The structure of the national executive council (NEC) is laid down in the rule book and provides a template for all UNISON committee structures. By identifying the number of women representatives required to achieve proportionality (ie 72%) and designating the majority of seats by sex within mixed-sex, multi-representative constituencies, UNISON has a structure which allows for a minimum representation of 62% women on the NEC and a maximum of 75%. A proportion of the women's seats are reserved for low-paid women. Seats are also reserved for men. Men can hold a minimum of 25% of the NEC seats and a maximum of 38%. A smaller number of "general" seats have been created and these can be contested by either men or women.
  • It is not only trade unions with a predominantly female membership which are changing their structures to facilitate women becoming representatives. The Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), the second largest UK union, with 19% female membership, has created six new seats on its general executive council (GEC) for women representatives. This rule change was introduced in July 1998 after an attempt to introduce proportional representation on a voluntary basis had failed. The six women who were elected to these seats in December 1998 were elected by the union's female membership. These new seats augment the existing structure and do not replace it. Women can still contest mixed-constituency seats and in the most recent GEC election six women were elected using the traditional route.

However, notwithstanding the above examples, there is still a long way to go before unions' policy-making committees generally reflect the proportion of women in their constituencies. A recent survey of the 10 largest UK unions showed that women's representation at senior levels had not kept pace with their increased membership ("Are women out of proportion?", Labour Research, March 1998). This is a feature common to both the lay membership and the paid officers. The survey indicated that of the 73 unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), only six (8%) had female general secretaries. In the majority of unions, men dominate the paid officer posts at all levels. The election in December 1998 of a woman deputy secretary in the male-dominated TGWU is regarded as a major breakthrough.


The presence of more women on trade union policy-making committees is intended to raise the profile of women's concerns and ensure that they are pursued within collective bargaining. Women still do the majority of housework and earn 80% of the average men's hourly wage (UK9709165N). With employers adopting a "wait and see" approach to Labour's new "family-friendly" legislation (UK9905103F), the presence of more women in the committees which determine unions' collective bargaining objectives is timely.

Research suggests that action taken by unions to increase the number of women representatives is working and that reserving seats for women has a dynamic effect on women's representation. However, this is a slow process. In addition, increasing the number of women in committees does not necessarily change what is pursued at the negotiating table. The TUC general secretary John Monks has said that unions "must start listening to women" (UK9703114N). However, despite the spread of "listening" mechanisms such as surveys and studies, the most significant indicator of how successfully unions have facilitated the active involvement of women will be when women are participating directly in determining union policy through their membership of the key union decision-making bodies. (Anne McBride, IRRU)

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