Bargaining on equality: a challenge to the trade unions?

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 4th April 2012

“If we want to see women in positions of power in society – how do we achieve it?”

This was the challenge we set for the audience at the Unions21 debate: Women, Power and Trade Unions.

The debate, part of the Unions 21 conference on Friday, was convened to discuss a new piece of research by the Electoral Reform Society, conducted in partnership with Unions21, examining the role of women within the power structures of trade unions.

Women hold the top position in only a quarter of TUC affiliated trade unions yet make up over 50 per cent of the membership. Just as in Westminster, women in trade unions are not being represented at the decision-making table.

A key theme of the discussion was the impact of austerity measures on women workers and women’s representation. Geraldine Healy, professor of employment relations at Queen Mary University, expressed concern that, “In times of austerity, equality bargaining becomes an add-on, competing with other priorities. There is a danger that equality bargaining issues are seen as a luxury item in difficult economic times.” This concern was reflected by those on the conference floor who felt that there was simply not enough time to drive forward equality issues with other negotiating priorities.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society suggested that unions need to look at cultural as well as structural barriers to women’s progress and to focus on talent, “It’s about not letting talent go to waste. Companies are starting to wake up to the fact that having boards which reflect their customers is good for business. Unions too can derive strength from their diversity.”

The role of quotas was discussed widely with general consensus that affirmative action needs to be taken and that  there must be a will to address this issue at the top. Nan Sloane, Director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, stressed the need to understand what works, “Quotas are not an end in themselves, but if you want decision-making structures to look like the society they make decisions for, how else can you achieve your objective?”

Sue Ferns, Chair of Unions 21 asked the audience to reflect on the correlation between the gender pay gap and lack of women’s representation in unions. Nan Sloane noted that the gender pay gap for part-time workers is double that for full-time workers; an issue unions had started to address but “not enthusiastically”.

Conference attendees from across a range of unions discussed their personal experiences and following the discussion were asked to come forward with their own recommendations which will form part of the ongoing research.

The union movement holds democracy and representation at its core yet faces similar challenges to achieving representational equality as our political institutions. This new piece of research by the Electoral Reform Society will look at how unions can address the representational deficit and in doing so provide learning for our other democratic organisations.

The Electoral Reform Society is part of the campaign to achieve 50:50 men and women across all of our political institutions. To find out more visit

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