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Helping women to get to the top in trade unions

Women are seriously under-represented in trade union leadership roles, despite the fact that they form over half of UK and almost half of US union membership. This striking discrepancy, and how to tackle it, has been the focus of Professor Gill Kirton and Professor Geraldine Healy’s recent research.

Their project, Women and Union Leadership in a Comparative Context, is the first cross-national UK-US study on the topic, and incorporated extensive engagement and an ambitious strategy for change.

Although women carry out leadership roles at a variety of levels within unions, many continue to experience being excluded, undervalued, undermined and marginalised. Kirton and Healy’s research clearly demonstrates that many of the challenges of union leadership, especially for women, transcend national boundaries and specific contexts. Their work has encouraged a wide range of unions in both countries to engage with this pressing issue.

Kirton has advised the probation service union Napo on changing policy and practices to improve women’s representation in the union’s leadership and decision-making structures. She drew up a series of recommendations based on the earlier UK-US study, her analysis of Napo gender monitoring data, and a survey of Napo women members. Napo accepted these recommendations in full in 2012, and asked Kirton to advise on their implementation.

To date, the Union has initiated negotiations with the General Federation of Trade Unions to establish a bespoke women’s leadership training course; improved its collection of data on women’s representation within the Union; placed women’s issues as a standing item on the Equal Rights Committee agenda; run workshops on women and accessing power at its biennial Women’s Conference; and disseminated good branch practices which reflect Kirton’s recommendations.

Their work has also helped women union members to advance their careers, providing networking opportunities, and putting people in touch with role models and mentors. The study has been widely covered in the media, helping to raise the profile of this issue. For example: The Women changing Britain’s unions; and Trade unions: Not dead yet.

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