Opening Plenary: Sisters to the Front Network Conference
Updated: May 20
Sheffield Workstation February 6 2020
Marianne Quick, Network Co-Founder
Six years ago I attended the TUC’s week long women’s summer school. It was the only forum in which I had had the opportunity of having tailored CPD alongside women employees of other trade unions….. and it was here that I started to explore the prospect of a network of women officials.
Naively I thought it would be straightforward.
So you wouldn’t think that organising a conference for women who work for trade unions would be so difficult?
Who would have thought that rolling out a period dignity campaign or menopause training in a TU would be difficult either?
Who would have thought that making enquiries about gender pay within Trade Unions let alone demanding it from our employers would be treated with suspicion and in places hostility?
Who would have thought that when we challenge sexual harassment in our own workplaces or express unhappiness when we are asked to represent perpetrators or facilitate their protection to move on to other workplaces – or find ways in which the women we represent are not forced to be silenced, that we in turn are silenced or ignored?
These are issues that have repeatedly been labelled as ‘too politically sensitive’ by trade unions in the past and not prioritised as a consequence.
But they also represent a significant threat to the status quo. A status quo of structures and positions and behaviours that are inherently patriarchal.
Sistertothefront event 2020
For most women at this conference this will be one of the first times that we will all have been in a room as trade union employees from different unions, with the safe space to discuss and share our experiences as women workers in our own right, as opposed to representatives of other people and other people’s problems.
Very little research into us too as a group of workers.
Guilliaume, (2018) research with women employees of trade unions reported that participants mentioned their solitude and difficulties in sharing gender equality concerns, not only within their union but also with their families.
Kirton and Healy (2012) in their study of women leaders in trade unions found that giving women a voice was important so that they could be heard against a hierarchical and bureaucratic union culture, which could deter women from fully participating.
Trade unions have yet to achieve proportionality and women who work as officials face the same structural challenges to progression, equal pay and harassment that is faced by many of the women workers they represent. How can we legitimately go into employers with gender pay gap claims when our own employers have a lot to answer for in this regard?
Our own needs are often placed second to others. Women officials have a unique and powerful voice, where, if we became more organised, more connected, had training to meet our needs as women workers and as trade unionists ourselves, would be better placed to make more transformatory approaches to the advancement of women workers, whether as members or as employees in the Trade Union movement.
Finally, the only reason this conference has been made possible because we have received such amazing support. For example, Harriet Eisner regional TUC equalities convenor who literally kicked off at regional conference with a controversial gender pay motion that ruffled feathers but meant that they had to give us either a gender pay campaign or a women’s conference. In their mind this was the lesser of two evils, time will tell…..and Lucy Hopley, planning partner in crime who has been an amazingly supportive sister and calming voice of reason who just got on and did shit and of course all the sisters some here today along the way who have said this a really good idea, keep going.
We really want to harness this opportunity and would like the conference to be the start of setting out what our priorities actually are and give us the space to represent ourselves politically and as professionals. I really hope you take positive things away from today and you enjoy the time out in a space that’s been created just for you.