The feminization of the trade unions is advancing into the upper echelons. But organizational cultures still work against women assuming leadership roles.

Sharon Graham is now in control of Unite’s news

With the successive elections of Christina McAnea and Sharon Graham as general secretaries of Unison and Unite – the two largest UK trade unions – it was a pivotal year for women’s representation in UK trade unions. Other women had paved the way, such as Frances O’Grady, who was elected chairwoman of the union congress in 2013, and long-time union leaders in feminized professional unions in the education or health sector.

These successes are to be celebrated. The increase in union membership among UK workers since 2017 is due to female membership and stood at 27.2 percent in 2020 (20.2 percent for men), while many unions have made progress towards achieving proportionality on their boards. These results are the result of a long-standing equality and diversity policy and the tireless work of some female managers or equality officers, although male managers who have selected and supervised women who assume responsibility also play a key role.

Persistent difficulties

However, this “feminization from above” hides the persistent difficulties many women encounter on their way within the union movement. Some traditionally male-dominated unions are still struggling to promote equality and diversity – including the GMB, which was the subject of an independent report that in 2020 labeled them “institutionally sexist”.

Graham’s election to head Unite came amid a smear campaign of “shameful” online abuse, including disparaging mock-up images associated with her refusal to stand by two other prominent male rivals. And she managed to get elected without the assistance of a regional secretary, which challenged the internal system of co-optation.

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Our research has shown that access to union leadership does indeed continue to rely on informal detection and selection mechanisms and the support of mentors (often high-ranking white men) who open the door to leadership positions and provide advice. This support from peers is all the more important as formal leadership training in trade unions is rare and there is little compensatory training for women only.

In addition, the decentralization and democratic nature of the unions leave local and middle managers autonomy in implementing equality policies, which sometimes hinders the progress of women in middle management. The feminization of the trade unions is therefore carried out in a “sandwich mode” – from the top of the structures, which is strongly influenced by national equality policy, and from the base of the members, supported by the massive entry of women into the labor market in recent years 30 Years.

As women’s membership grows, women’s union participation is characterized by vertical and horizontal gender segregation. Women are underrepresented as full-time shop stewards and regional officials and in certain prominent roles, such as full-time negotiators – they are held by older (white) men who are unwilling to give up their position or who are unable to make progress in their union or find a job outside of the movement. The internal labor market of UK unions is characterized by low turnover, which hinders the renewal and diversification of management staff.

Controversial Organizations

The Unite election is a reminder that trade unions are controversial organizations. At certain times, strong internal rivalries between political factions can weaken management careers and facilitate leadership team renewal, opening up unexpected opportunities for women.

Graham refused to take part in talks to agree a leftist unit candidate and ran for reformer, stressing that Unite must return to work and focus on supporting its members. She even claimed that the union movement had reached a “crisis point” and that it needed an unestablished person to bring Unite back to its main workforce agenda and end its “obsession” with the Labor Party.

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However, this reference to a crisis situation that justifies the emergence of an atypical leader – a woman – is reminiscent of the “glass cliff”: women are more likely than men to be promoted to leadership positions during a downturn or crisis when the risk of failure is low highest. They face a possible backlash if they reach the top management levels without the necessary political support or peer networks, and perhaps with no experience.

In addition, these extraordinary opportunities for women, especially mothers, are not without often exorbitant costs. As leaders, they have to adhere to the stubborn male norms of union careers, especially about long hours and high geographical mobility. Because of their family responsibilities, women generally struggle more than men to meet those obligations, although some have the support of a partner and family.

These pressures are well known within unions that have long sought to help with childcare or encourage family-friendly meetings. However, the difficulties of reconciling union and private life are now exacerbated in feminized professions, and particularly in the public service, by staff shortages, management pressures, lack of time for union representatives and sometimes victimization, which complicates participation.

Women agency

Research has highlighted the central importance of women’s representation in the union context – how women overcome barriers and constraints, how they challenge gender cultures and male practices, and what resources and strategies could help them, including professional qualifications and feminist orientations. Most British women union leaders have specific characteristics. They come from the (white) working class, received political training in their families or through participation in large strikes and political groups, and often went back to university or attended large TUC training courses to acquire the technical or leadership skills necessary for a Union career. Although they sometimes had low-paying part-time jobs, they were able to become full-time union officers at a relatively young age and, thanks to their ability to face tough employers or take on new roles, build legitimacy internally, such as organizational or equality duties.

While many of them brought feminist awareness and demands to their unions, they have often chosen to neutralize their gender in order to join the prevailing class discourse of their union. While they promoted other women as they rose, they have not always succeeded in overcoming the structural and cultural barriers that many women – particularly blacks, ethnic minorities, and low-income earners – face to effectively participating in trade unions. In addition, the effectiveness of trade union equality and diversity policies is hampered today by the erosion of employment conditions and trade union rights in the public sector, as well as the weak presence and rights of trade unions in the private sector and the fact that many paid (especially BAME) women have while the pandemic likely lost their jobs.

For all these reasons, one can wonder whether the highlighting of the choice of outstanding women leaders cannot see the forest for the trees – and creates the impression that equality has arrived, even though the conditions for many women to join a union are still far from being met, in the UK and elsewhere.

Union feminization, women's union participation, female membership, Sharon Graham, women in union leadership

Cécile Guillaume is an industrial relations editor at the University of Surrey and author of Organizing Women: A Study of Gender Equality Policies in French and British Trade Unions (Bristol University Press, forthcoming).