Report calls for change to ensure gender balancing within Ireland's largest union

A report drawn up by a special gender equity committee in Ireland's largest trade union, SIPTU, presented in October 1999, has proposed a systematic approach to "gender balancing" within the union, including the appointment of women to top-level posts.

A systematic "gender balancing" of the internal organisation of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) - Ireland's largest trade union - including targets for the appointment of women to senior industrial posts, has been recommended by a recent report from a "gender equity committee" set up to look at equality within the union.

The gender equity committee was set up after the passing of a formal resolution at SIPTU's biennial conference in Ennis, Co. Clare in late 1997. This instructed the union to make significant progress towards equality within its own structure by 2010, and to report on progress to each biennial conference until then. The committee's first report was prepared for the SIPTU conference in Killarney, Co. Kerry in October 1999.

The report provides data on gender proportions at all levels in the union, as of the end of 1998. The female membership of SIPTU - which is effectively the figure against which all others must be "benchmarked" - is about 40% of the total. The union's regions vary within 5%-6% of this average, with the western region having the strongest female presence at 46%, and the Dublin private sector region having the smallest proportion at 35%.

Three-to-one split

Out of the total of 6,237 SIPTU union representatives at shop steward level, 25% are female - a significant under-representation at this basic level. Region 8 - which covers the union's small number of members based in Northern Ireland- has the highest proportion of female shop stewards at 32%, with the south-east region the lowest at 20%.

The gender balance at branch committee level is remarkably similar, at 26% female and 74% male. Here the Northern Ireland region again comes out top at 38% female (just six percentage points behind the overall female membership figure). The south-eastern region is again the lowest, at 17% female.

A similar overall figure applies in the case of branch trustees, who are 25% female throughout the union. Here the Northern Ireland region has 100% women among its trustees, with the next highest level being found in region 7 (the Border counties) with 37%. The south-east is again the lowest, with 9%.

Figures are also given for health and safety representatives (16% female), the new position of education representatives or lay training tutors (37% female) and "participation" representatives who sit on bodies such as partnership forums (18% female). For these positions, the regional patterns outlined above do not hold. For example, the Dublin private sector has no female health and safety representatives, but has 80% female education representatives. The Border counties region has no female participation representatives.

Full-time staff

Of SIPTU's full-time employed staff, there are no women at national industrial secretary level or above and only two at regional secretary level (both of these being in head office posts).

There is also significant under-representation of women at branch secretary and branch assistant levels. However, there have been a significant number of female appointments at branch assistant level in the past year or two, and this is now showing in the figures for this grade. As of February 1999, while just eight out of 65 branch secretaries were female (12%), as many as 14 out of the 46 branch assistant secretaries were women (30%). The branch assistant secretary figure is, therefore, making some progress towards the overall proportion of women members in the union (40%). At the same time, about 95% of the clerk typists and cleaning staff employed by SIPTU are female. Almost all of the cleaning staff are female and of the eight or so maintenance staff, all are male.

As part of its general personnel policy, the union should identify "career paths" for women who are "clustered" in traditional female jobs, states the report. It should examine the posts to which staff may be promoted that will become available in the next five years and identify in advance the kind of qualifications that will be expected for those positions. Schemes to assist staff in obtaining these qualifications should be developed and offered, in order to put women in a position to compete for them.

Specifically, the reports notes that up to three senior administrative posts will fall vacant in the next few years. Given the clustering of women in lower administrative posts, the national executive council (NEC) should "clarify its intentions in respect of these possible vacancies". Then, the gender equity committee says, the NEC should ensure that all the vacancies are filled as part of a single set of interviews and that the gender balance of this department at senior level is "consciously addressed".

Staff panels

The committee advocates a general extension of the use of panels of candidates for appointments to as many grades as possible. It takes the view that "the filling of jobs on a piecemeal basis will tend to perpetuate the gender imbalance of senior posts." The report adds that "the politics of the organisation will make it very difficult not to be unintentionally unfair to female candidates where one post falls to be filled in isolation. The pressure to give the post to a favoured candidate will be more difficult to resist than if a number of vacancies fall to be filled at the same time."

A panel system is already in operation for the branch assistant grade, and the committee notes that women are proportionately more successful at interviews under this system. It recommends that a panel of branch secretaries be created. Since the branch assistant grade just below it is not yet evenly distributed between the genders, it concedes that a branch secretary panel "may not initially be totally gender-balanced", although this "should be corrected in subsequent panels".

Of equal importance to the creation of panels, according to the report, is the need to ensure that women are offered employment from the panel at the same rate as men. The committee feels that there is a need for the NEC to set targets, through the general secretary's office, for the filling of vacancies in non-traditional posts for both women and men.

Activists

In terms of lay activists, the committee states that the union should systematically record gender data on all its representatives, specifically: shop stewards; section committee members; local representatives; branch chairs; branch members; negotiating committee members; delegates to Trades Councils; delegates to other bodies; delegates to conferences; members of the regional executive committees; regional executive office holders; course nominees; delegates to inter-union bodies; trustees; and nominees to outside agencies. Branches should have to report this information along with financial information, and all the data should be compiled by the general secretary and published annually as a "gender audit report".

Each branch should also be asked to develop a three-year plan to increase female involvement in activities. Initiatives in this area could include special courses, "mentoring", "shadow" shop stewards, networks, seminars, "focus groups" and selection for group negotiations and delegations. Targets should also be set for each branch.

Across SIPTU as a whole, the committee proposes percentage targets for gender balancing for delegates to conferences, nominations to training courses and outside bodies: 60% gender balancing by 2003, 70% by 2005 and 80% by 2008.

The committee's report sets out the different responsibilities on gender balancing issues which different levels - such as general secretary, regional secretary and branches - should have. However, it is also of the view that the matter needs "to be driven forward" by a senior union official designated by the general secretary, who would become the main resource for information on developments in this area. His or her office would collect and analyse all the relevant information. The general secretary would be responsible for the collection of statistics and would publish them annually, with a commentary on the trends.

Commentary

The report is significant in that it sets out a systematic approach to addressing the sort of gender deficit which is common to most trade unions in Ireland. It also neatly fits in with the more proactive and professional approach to internal staffing issues which SIPTU has adopted recently. For example, in September 1999 the union appointed Patricia King, an experienced former branch secretary, to the post of staff relations secretary. This post is the equivalent to that of "head of personnel" in a major company.

Given that the union employs around 300 full-time staff, such an appointment was long overdue. SIPTU and other unions have campaigned for companies where they have members to adopt enlightened personnel management policies and practices. Such an appointment, therefore, along with the gender equity committee's report, may start to bring it into line with those companies that it would regard as "model employers". (Brian Sheehan, IRN)

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