In the year that the TUC celebrated 150 years since it’s first Congress, women have been celebrating 100 years of women’s voting rights.
We remembered the women who made huge strides for equality; from the London Matchgirls who fought for better working conditions to the Ford Dagenham women whose strikes led to the Equal Pay Act. And for the first time ever, UK organisations employing more than 250 workers had to account for this through a gender pay gap audit.
So where are we today with women’s equality?
Unfortunately, not far enough.
We continue to see too few women in positions of power and leadership; women make up the majority of the UK electorate and workforce, yet fewer than a third of our MPs and only 16% of FTSE 350 CEOs are women.
On top of this, the gender pay gap audit only told us what we already knew – it has barely shifted. And for unions in particular, it brought home the urgent need for us to promote, encourage, and develop more women into positions of leadership within our movement.
We therefore developed our first ever TUC South West Women in Leadership Programme, as part of the TUC Education national programme, to bring a new cohort of future women leaders - women already working hard to push for change but not yet visible in senior union positions.
All with different perspectives, ideas and aspirations the group of 24 women represented 11 trade unions – from branch secretaries and women’s officers, to union organisers and convenors from all sectors and walks of life. From the outset their enthusiasm and willingness to learn, do and be more was clear.
The course developed so-called ‘leadership skills’ – communication, networking, presenting and debating, understanding and using different leadership techniques, as well as providing them with practical experience in research and campaigning as well as learning how to influence key stakeholders.
They also produced films discussing: men and feminism, the need to ask more women to stand in political roles, a campaign video on the importance of using gender neutral language, and one with Lego on creating new activists (yes, they produced an entire Lego movie!). On top of this, they are currently working on individual research projects. And, as an example of the leadership capabilities, many have already begun using their research to negotiate better working practices with employers.
From the outset our aim was to encourage the women to learn from each other and form a long-lasting network of contacts that will help them achieve and progress once completed.
We sought to inspire and learn about the different pathways to leadership.
Joanne Kaye, UNISON South West Regional Secretary and TUC South West Vice-Chair spoke to the group of her experiences and encouraged the women to be unafraid of being different – advice that really struck with the group.
Many also found their political voices as we helped them to understand and navigate those political vehicles to lobby for change. During a visit to the Houses of Parliament the group met Thangham Debbonaire MP for Bristol West who single-handedly inspired five budding future politicians.
The course involved international dimensions, and in the context of Brexit, exposed them to external forces key to improving workers’ and women’s rights in the UK, particularly from the EU. And so during a visit to the EU Parliament in Brussels, the delegation met Clare Moody Labour MEP in the South West who, not only leads on Aerospace and defence but is heavily involved in equality and women’s rights in the EU.
As a former trade union organiser, Clare was an inspiration to just how far the women can go.
From getting more involved in senior meetings, to improving work practices, the group have also seen four promotions after just six months. We’ve also had more debates about equality, workers’ rights, politics, women leaders and trade unions than you can wave a banner at.
Each woman brought their own experiences, knowledge and voices. Friendships have been made and the course has sparked in them a desire to nevertheless persist.
As history has shown us, women have led societal changes that brought more fairness, justice and equality. Developing more women leaders can only be a good thing. So watch this space as history continues to be made.