“Women in Trade Unions” Bywell and Prudhoe Labour Branches’ Rally Saturday 26 October 2019

You can watch here: https://www.facebook.com/100000500624699/posts/2991364537556871?sfns=mo

Thank you Brian and Dot for inviting me to speak today.

“Women in Trade Unions” was a broad remit and left the door open for me to think what it was that I wanted to say within that.

Newcastle University Business School run a series of events each year called Little Heresies – where they invite speakers to talk about a known theme from a heretic or alternative viewpoint, away from the obvious.

So – I’m not so much going to take you on a journey today so much as look at who is already on the bus.  I want to look at women already involved in unions


A number of us here – Tony, Fran, Brian, Vanessa – attended an event at Labour Conference last month on organising campaigns.  Jamie – you were the key speaker and that bit of the event was fine.

The third speaker worked for some think tank and told us he did everything on his computer on his own.

What he kept saying was that narratives – stories – aren’t important in building your campaigns, that you don’t need human stories.

Now I’m not surprised by him – if all your work is on a screen you are not connecting with people and you’re not going to have an emotional response.

Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence tells us we have two responses to information.  We have a thinking, cognitive response and a feeling, emotional response.

I think narratives are important.  They provide an emotional hook but like any good story, they need a beginning, a middle and an end.  The need to take you somewhere.


I was at a talk recently with a woman, a trade unionist, in a leadership role.

This woman told a story of a professional woman affected by casualization, by insecure work, who, with no guaranteed income became homeless, living in a hostel, yet still working in her professional role.

And the story stopped – no ending.

And then she said – having left the audience on an emotional cliff edge “And I don’t expect anyone here knows what this like”.

I was really annoyed.  I do not doubt that this woman is caring and that she was affected by what she had heard.

But – she had ramped up people’s emotions, left people with almost guilt for not having that shared experience of losing their home – but the story went nowhere.

What I wanted was an ending – a pragmatic response – “this informed my decision to …” or “this is what the union is doing to support her …” but nothing.

There’s also a danger when you overplay the emotional card that the audience becomes anaesthetised – and so it becomes counter-intuitive actually.

Cicero, the Roman statesperson said “we ought not to share distresses ourselves for the sake of others, but we ought to relieve others of their distresses if we can”.

So the purpose of telling the story should be to reach an end result.  To make something better.

I responded to this woman.  I said I do know what that experience is like and twenty years ago I was pregnant, homeless and in temporary hostel accommodation.

BUT I went on … as Simone de Beauvoir says our experiences shape the women we become, so I would say my experiences have shaped the trade unionist I became.

AND for me the importance not only of supporting a member through a process, but supporting the human being through the process.

I have to say I’ve also learned to see casework as a third thing – and that is recruitment.  Our branch recruited more on the back of our reputation for casework than any other recruitment activity.

But back to experience.  What was it I had wanted?  What was it I had needed?

So when I’ve worked with women on their own with children who can’t meet after work – then if they need telephone meetings at 8pm after the children are in bed, then so be it.

If they’re too stressed to come into work I’ve met them in town.  If they’ve needed home visits that’s what they’ve had.

The suicidal member with multiple services involved who’d lost everything – the Saturday morning twenty-minute phone call that bridged him from week to week, that’s what he had for the time he needed it.

Redundancy is the goal.  Not redundancy in terms of members’ jobs but in support.  Building someone so they no longer need your support.

What was it I wanted?  What was it I needed?  They’re not the same thing.

I needed somewhere warm, safe and dry to live.  I wanted my own home.

This was my first experience of casework.  My own.  I was told the only way to deal with the council was to shout.  I disagreed.

I kept a record.  I told my story.  Of night long heroin parties.  Faeces up the bathroom wall.  The impact on sleep, pregnancy.

I was moved to the women’s refuge and then to social housing in an alright area.

This is how I learned to negotiate.  Fact with narrative with reason.  And no shouting.


I left that event on campaigning and went to the event next door on women who have been successful – smashing the glass ceiling – in traditionally male industries.

Great.  Some women have been very successful. 

I am only really going to be interested if you’re prepared to risk cutting yourself on the broken glass to reach down and pull others through.  Otherwise – what have you learned?  What can you give?


There were a lot of women in that room who talked of being coached, trained, supported by networks of women.

That’s great too.  The greatest resource women have is other women.  There is so much we can give and so much we can learn.

BUT this also got me thinking about the women who didn’t have this ongoing support or who didn’t have that springboard into their positions.

These are women who are ‘agentic’.

Agentic women have agency:

 They are competent
 They are confident
 They are assertive

But agentic women can also experience blocks and barriers which might be ignored because they are capable women.

They can be criticised, demonised, for achieving status or position.

This can be seen in the use of language:

 Strong becomes aggressive
 Confidence becomes arrogance

Simone de Beauvoir calls these blocks “social dominance penalties” – a punishment – which she says is often unconscious but a way of maintaining the social hierarchy – a social hierarchy with men in these leadership roles and positions.

The historian Mary Beard asks the question of this unconscious bias “How can we make ourselves aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her [the woman]”.

Being cognisant.  Being consciously aware has to be a start.

But this leads to another question.

Where do you go if you hit a block?

There isn’t, actually, anywhere, within or without a trade union that anyone can go if they don’t have that network of support around them.  Which is an issue of inclusion actually.  Or exclusion.  Against the very grain of trade unionism.


There are more questions than answers.

A key question to consider – why do we want women here?

Why do we want women in trade unions in roles, in positions?

What is it that a woman offers and what is it she brings?

What is the difference that a woman brings to a role?  Because gender balance isn’t enough.


“A kinder, gentler politics”

Now who said that?  Because it wasn’t a woman.

Kindness.  Gentleness.

In philosophy these attributes – or virtues – are assigned gender – the feminine – but not necessarily the person who holds them.  

The French philosopher Comte-Sponville says “What is or seems to be feminine about gentleness is its courage without violence, its strength without harshness, its love without anger … it makes humanity more human”.

This then is back to emotional intelligence – the emotional tempered by pragmatism.

With the right conditions then, the energy of women could bring about a better way of doing things.


But not all women act with heart.

We all know women who lack sympathy, who don’t act with care.

I still find it incredible that our trade union branch at Newcastle College launched the first period poverty campaign at a college in England – and yet we had a woman prime minister running the country – what was she doing for our young women and our girls?

So we can have women in positions who do sympathy well.  They know the right emotional responses, can show empathy.  She might respond to an emotional pull, to a narrative, with kindness, with compassion and be right there, in the situation with the person.  But nothing moves.

Or you can have a woman who knows the language of empathy, without having the feeling, who knows what to say as a learned response to use the situation to advantage.  Is she really then working for other women?  What changes?

If as Cicero said “we ought to relieve others of their distress” then the women we need in positions need to have both empathy and the ability to stand back and think with objectivity and pragmatism.

We need both qualities, both attributes, to move things on.  To make changes for the better.


We can also have women in roles and positions who pull other women through and pull them in and put them in positions that support them in their own positions.

 This isn’t bringing women on
 This isn’t building skills and resilience
 This isn’t preparing other women to fly


This is about securing and maintaining your own position.

This is about power and control.

And if women are behaving and doing this – then the question to be asked is what, actually, are they doing for women?

The American feminist writer Audre Lorde calls for all women to examine, to interrogate their own lust for power within the political structure and their investment, therefore, in aggressive systems of domination.

Women aren’t changing the system if they are only replacing men in upholding it.

Are we going to sustain the system or do we have the courage to change it?

And this is about patriarchy.  Not so much men and women – but patriarchal structures.

bell hooks says patriarchy isn’t gendered.  Women uphold patriarchy too.

Our trade unions have top down, patriarchal structures.

And power is bestowed or withdrawn in this perpendicular hierarchy.

 Fear of losing power makes you want to hold on to it
 Fear loses confidence
 Fear loses control

And so the behaviours in poor management that as trade unionists we challenge in our employers are at risk of appearing in our unions.


Zimbardo the American psychologist, noted for his work on prisons, says that people adapt and conform to their surroundings.  They behave because of their conditions.

So we have some women who then conform to the patriarchal norm because that is where they are.

The answer, then, is to change the environment.  Change the structure of trade unions.

 The answer is to move from top down, dominator models of organisation to horizontal, partnership models:

 Where all are valued
 Where difference is equal
 Where the power comes from values of respect, kindness, generosity
 Where we do not need to bestow or withdraw patronage and power
 Because we are confident in our positions
 And there is no need to dominate

This is a big change and a big ask.

Trade unions are mirrors of what we want to see in our workplaces and our communities.

We are now used to seeing high numbers of women in positions in the trade unions and this has become normalised – mirrored, reflected – with the normalisation of more women in positions and work and in the community.


But we can go further than that.

We can have women leading in positions in trade unions who are

 Pragmatic and kind
 Gentle and strong
 Determined and loving

We are not going to change the structures of trade unions overnight – or even, necessarily, any time soon.

But what we can do is model behaviours and stand firm in our values, the values that we want to see in our trade unions, in the workplace and in the community.

We can stand firm in our truth and we can bear our standards high.


Thank you.

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