Why we need a professional network of women officials within the trade union movement
14th May 2021
There has been abundant research and commentary which has reflected upon the roles of women in trade unions but this has predominantly focused on women members as opposed to women employees. Women employed in trade unions are merely mentioned in passing if at all.
In a review of the relevant literature from both an industrial relations and corporate perspective on the
benefits of networks, together with the feedback we have had from the number of events we have run so far, it is clear that a network for employed officials of trade unions is both wanted and necessary.
Trade Union structures, whilst on the surface may appear to be equality compliant, remain predominantly masculine organisations with women often having to adopt masculinated forms of leadership and behaviours to progress or maintain their powerbase (Kirton & Healy, 2012). This merely preserves the status quo and restricts more transformative action
Women officials are in a position to facilitate the mainstreaming approach of gender equality from within trade unions as workers in their own right. However, if we are to shift and to progress to the next stage, by for example, overcoming internal employment barriers and facilitating career progression for women as employees within trade union, then there is a legitimate argument to establish the same separate spaces we have created for women activists for women employees.
Where did all this start?
Our first event hosted by the Y & H TUC to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018. It was actually snowed off on the day, so happened some six months later in Dewsbury.
We have held two further events since then, a conference in Sheffield and our first on-line conference.
What we are aiming for
Our network is aiming to provide tailored professional development, facilitate mutual support and the building of solidarities within and across trade unions. These building blocks will be crucial to enable and empower women officials to push through the next set of structural changes necessary to challenge the traditional ‘masculinised’ model of trade unionism for the benefit of all women especially if we are to achieve our aim of proportionality, address intersectional issues not adequately tackled thus far in the movement and to challenge the scandal that are the gender and race pay gaps.
At the end of the day, women who are employed as workers in trade unions face the same structural challenges to progression, equal pay and harassment that is faced by many of the women workers they represent. The network has been a space whereby we can discuss and address those challenges and design the interventions we will need to put in place in pursuit of those aims.
Women workers in trade unions 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.
Join us (no fees)
We have made a decision not to replicate any trade union structures within our network. It is a cooperative model of working which currently has a group of sisters who have volunteered to undertake certain tasks and take forward ideas for future events and training.
If you have an idea for an event, would like to contribute to an event working group, then get in touch. If you simply want to attend and take part in the discussion, then that is fine too.
Sign up for our mailing list and look out for forthcoming events.
What is a professional network?
Networking is ‘the process of contacting and being contacted by people in our social network and maintain these linkages and relationships’ (Burke, 1993, in Travers et al., 1997, p. 62) or the ‘banding together of like-minded people for the purposes of contact and friendship and support’ (Vinnicommbe and Colwill, 1996, in Travers et al., 1997, p.62).
The importance of being part of a collective voice is key to the TU movement. The opportunity to share with other women who perform the same unique role, albeit for different employers has clearly been a theme at our network events so far. Sharing stories, and learning from them. The development of an ‘honest’ culture was suggested at our first event, where asking for help and support or calling out harrassment is no longer seen as a weakness. This is supported by Guilliaume (2018) with women in her study referencing their solitude and difficulties in sharing gender equality concerns both within their unions and with their families.
Cooperation not Competition
Women working together to help each other without this being problematic or competitive and the need for mentoring, peer development and opportunities to inspire and encourage each other. Options for secondments between different unions will allow for breadth of experience but will rely upon the cooperation between management structures within unions.
A network would allow sharing of innovative ideas and practice where we can start to challenge the status-quo from suggestions for different ways of working and the development of new structures that are more enabling so as to work towards gendered social change.
Tailored training and development
This unique group of workers requires unique training and development and there needs to be innovation both in relation to the content but also how this is delivered. We need to have a say over what we need. Some of this learning we will be able to facilitate from within the network itself because of the range of skills and experience we have amongst us.
Mentors and Coaching
*In development* coaching and mentoring programme
All of our events have raised the complex role and dynamic of trade unions within trade unions and what work needs to be done politically as well as practically to improve the working lives of women officials both collectively (in relation to the gender pay gap and policy development) but also regarding individual representation (especially in relation to dealing with allegations of sexual harassment). We are currently developing a list of those of us who are willing to act as mentors and in some cases, offer formal representation. As we are all accredited trade union representatives, reaching out to someone who you can trust, perhaps outside of your own organisation and branch structure, may be key in being able to adequately take forward a sensitive workplace issue. Please email email@example.com in confidence to discuss this further.
Burke, W (1993) Networking. In: Nicholson, N (Ed.) Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Organizational Behaviour. Oxford: Blackwell.
Guilliaume, C. (2018) Women’s Participation in a Radical Trade Union Movement That Claims to be Feminist. British Journal of Industrial Relations 56 (3): 556-578
Kirton, G and Healy, G (2012) ‘Lift as you rise’: union women’s leadership talk. Human Relations 65 (8): 979-999
Travers, C., Stevens, S and Pemberton, C (1997) Women’s networking across boundaries: recognizing different cultural agendas. Women in Management Review 12(2):61-70.
Vinnicombe, S and Colwill, N.L (1996) The Essence of Women in Management. Englewood Cliffs, NH: Prentice-Hall