Where Are The Women?

Submitted by Janine on Sat, 03/11/2006 - 20:04

Each year’s TUC Women’s conference has an hour-long informal session, and this year women delegates were asked to talk about the (under-)representation of women in union structures, and to give our views and those of our union (in my case, these are not necessarily the same thing).

I’m more than willing to blow the RMT’s trumpet most of the time – it is one of the most militant, and therefore effective, unions around.

But it has a pretty shameful record on women’s representation. It has no female elected officers, national or regional – to my knowledge, it never has had, in the whole history of the union. It has no women on its national Executive, and has had only two in its history. The views of many women activists on what to do about this are at odds with the views of the blokes at the top.

It is notable that the higher up you go in the union, the fewer women you see. The good news is that the union has more and more women workplace reps, has more women delegates to its AGM this year than ever before (though still not as high a proportion as its female membership). The National Women’s Advisory Committee is bigger than ever as more and more women put themselves forward for it.

We have just launched our Women’s Charter (which conference delegates could pick up from the ladies’ loos, where Sister Paula Mason had left a pile!).

This imbalance – women active at the grass-roots, but absent in the upper reaches - makes me think that the under-representation of women in union structures is not just about sexism, but also about bureaucracy. So the solution is not just to get more women into bureaucratic positions – though that would be good – it’s also about democratising our union. If we put more decision-making and power in the hand of rank-and-file reps and activists, then that in turn will get more women involved.

On Friday morning, the contentious issue of direct representation of women on the TUC General Council came to conference. I blogged about this from last year’s TUC Congress, and will not run through the arguments again here. The story from Eastbourne is that, despite union Executives instructing women delegates to toe the line and vote against their own interests, and despite the Women’s Committee recommending we vote against the proposal, the Conference passed it: 81-56 with lots of abstentions if I remember the figures correctly. CWU’s Maria Exall made an excellent proposing speech, running through the case very clearly and being firm without ranting (different style from me, then!).