Tackling union 'boys' club' by building women's confidence

ULR course in Leicester on 23 November 2015 ©unionlearn
ULR course in Leicester on 23 November 2015 ©unionlearn

Before I started working as a TUC tutor, I was a steward and health and safety rep in a very male-dominated branch of the union. It felt a bit like a "boys club" and it was often a challenge to get my points across and get my voice heard. It had a negative impact on my confidence and in my ability to be a union rep.

The support from the trade union education tutors and TUC was amazing in terms of building my confidence and encouragement into teaching. It was a real challenge at first, as many of the union rep courses were male-dominated and I would sometimes face the "what are you doing here, what do you know about trade unions, you are a woman" attitude. This wasn't often specifically expressed, but I often received different treatment from my male colleagues.

Unfortunately, I still come across this kind of attitude from time to time from some union reps, but I have much greater confidence to deal with it and don't take it so personally. I think this has been one of the biggest challenges, but I was really lucky that I had such a good support from my TUC colleagues that I was still able just to carry on instead of giving up. And there was a great opportunity for me to encourage more women to become union activists and take up reps role.

The union learning rep (ULR) role often attracts more women, but certainly, in the beginning, the stage one course often used to be nearly all men. This is not so much the case now, but it is still not unusual to get more men on the course than women.

Many union management structures are also male-dominated. This doesn't change overnight, but, if we have more women in training positions, they could become role models. It's like saying "if I can do it, you can definitely do it." I am not naturally confident, I am quite shy and I don't like confrontation.

I have seen many learners return to trade union education and it's great to see the change in people and how they have progressed in the union movement and in their own personal development.

Confidence building is one of the most important factors in becoming an activist or pursuing your career goals. Sometimes reps come to thank me for helping them to overcome their barriers. It is so pleasing to see when shy women at the beginning of the course who later start believing in themselves and that they not only can change their own lives but also influence their colleagues through union work which they never thought they could do.

Unfortunately for me, the trade union education department was closed in May due to lack of funding. It's sad to see that people are going to lose the opportunity to do face to face training, I think, online training is good, but there is a need for extra support to build their confidence, interaction with other people, sharing experiences and particular with women.

I don't believe that women who progressed so much by attending the union courses would have been able to build their confidence by doing it online, they can build their knowledge and skills but not confidence.

I've worked closely with unionlearn for most of my career. When I first started to work in trade union education as a development worker for a union learning fund-funded digital divide project to get people engaged with learning in the workplace. I worked with many learning reps and unions in a number of workplace learning centres and it was really nice to see that unionlearn still continues supporting ULRs.

It is very important for ULRs to get this continual support from unionlearn. After their initial training, many reps can feel quite isolated in their workplace and can also find it difficult to keep up to date with changes within learning agenda, funding changes and different initiatives. It's really useful to have that support for learning reps in the region. Unionlearn also plays an important role in promoting ULR role and recruiting ULR's onto courses, also building reps networks, which is most important in fulfilling a ULR role. Feedback is always very positive if unionlearn attends the courses or organises workshops, forums and networking events.

I am really passionate about the learning rep role because it does bring women in and, again, many women would say on the course "I would never be a union rep". I've heard this so many times, but now some of them became branch secretaries and even working for the union movement. So it's that first step to get women involved in the union activities is really important.

Women need more support into accessing union training, confidence building, leadership and management training if we want the union movement and society to be represented on equal terms. I myself am a product of trade union education and am now confident in training union reps, union officers, employees and managers in a wide range of subjects. I particularly enjoy writing and delivering equality and diversity courses.

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Emma Beck

Emma Beck is a former civil servant with 10 years of trade union education experience.

She is currently working for Central College Nottingham on a casual basis and works with employers in the Midlands on equality and diversity training for management.