05 March 2008
More women become active in trade unions
The profile of women in the UK's biggest trade unions is on the up, according to a new survey by Labour Research magazine - but progress towards full representation is proving slow and patchy.
Every two years, Labour Research surveys the UK's 10 biggest TUC-affiliated unions to find out how well their women members are represented in their decision-making structures and among their regional and national officials.
This year's survey reveals some obvious improvements. Two of the top 10 unions (one more than in 2006) now have female general secretaries; union delegations to TUC Congress are becoming less male-dominated; and more unions are achieving a gender balance among their national officials.
When Chris Keates was elected general secretary of teachers' union the NASUWT in 2004, she became the first woman to ever lead a top 10 union. She has since been joined by Dr Mary Bousted of the ATL teaching union, which became the 10th-largest TUC-affiliated union last year following the merger of Amicus and the T&G to form the new union Unite.
Women are also featuring more prominently in the delegations sent by unions to the UK's biggest union event, TUC Congress. In 2005, only the GMB, T&G and Amicus general unions had delegations whose make-up reflected the gender balance of their overall membership - but last year the CWU communication workers' union and PCS civil service union also achieved proportionality for their women members. Eight of the top 10 unions increased the proportion of women in their TUC delegations between 2005 and 2007.
There has also been an increase in the number of unions whose female membership is reflected or exceeded in the number of their female full-time national negotiating officers - from one (retail union USDAW) in 2006 to three (USDAW, the CWU and the T&G section of Unite) this year.
However, in some areas the level of female representation has changed for the worse. Five of the top 10 unions have reported a decrease in the number of women on their national executives, and only the T&G section of Unite currently has an executive that is "at least as female" as its overall membership. (In 2006, three of the top 10 unions - Amicus, USDAW and the CWU - achieved this.)
Furthermore, none of the top 10 unions has yet attained gender proportionality among its full-time regional officials, although public services union UNISON, USDAW and the NUT teaching union have all managed to increase the proportion of their regional officers who are women. In contrast, the proportion of female officials has fallen at regional level in the CWU, PCS and NASUWT unions, and at national level in UNISON, the GMB and PCS.
"The results of our survey are really encouraging, but they highlight areas where unions really need to make improvements," said Labour Research editor Nathalie Towner. "It is disappointing to see that women's representation has dropped in certain areas such as on some unions' national executives, but overall there is clear progress compared to our 2006 survey."
Notes for editors