Labour Research March 2016


Are women making progress?

Women now make up over half (55%) of Britain’s 6.4 million-strong trade union membership. So are unions ensuring that they are fairly represented throughout, and are progressing in, union structures? Labour Research investigates.

Every two years, Labour Research carries out a survey of the largest 10 TUC-affiliated unions to find out whether they are meeting their aim of proportionality, enshrined in many union rule books, by ensuring that women are fairly represented throughout their structures. 

Our survey looks at whether unions are increasing the proportion of women in their ranks; how many women are leading trade unions; and whether the proportion of women on governing bodies, in annual delegations to TUC Congress and among front-line, paid negotiating officials at both national and regional level fully reflects the proportion of women in membership.


Over the last decade or so, women have become much more visible at the top of Britain’s union movement. Frances O’Grady became TUC general secretary in January 2013, the first woman ever to hold this post. 

And three of the largest 10 TUC-affiliated unions — the three largest teaching unions — have all been led by women for some years now. Christine Blower was re-elected general secretary of the NUT in June 2014; Chris Keates has been general secretary of the NASUWT since 2004 when she became the first woman to lead one of Britain’s top 10 unions; and Mary Bousted has lead the ATL since 2002. The ATL entered the list of the TUC’s largest 10 unions following the merger of Amicus and the TGWU which lead to the formation of the country’s biggest union, the general Unite union, in 2007. 

The 30% proportion of women leading the 10 largest unions is reflected throughout Britain’s 52 TUC-affiliated unions where the proportion is 29%. Where the 20 largest unions are concerned, six of the top 20 are currently led by women, a drop compared with the seven in 2014. 

Here, in addition to Blower, Keates and Bousted, Sally Hunt is general secretary of the lecturers’ UCU union; Karen Middleton leads the physiotherapists’ CSP union (the CSP is a professional body and trade union, and Claire Sullivan heads up its union services); and Christine Payne is actors’ Equity union general secretary. Just outside the top 20, Lesley Page leads the midwives’ RCM union and Michelle Stanistreet is the journalists’ NUJ union leader. 

Leadership in smaller unions

Among smaller unions, Joanna Brown is chief executive at the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (SCP); Annette Mansell-Green is head of employment relations at the British Dietetic Association (BDA); Linda Rolph leads the Santander bank staff union; Elaine Edwards is general secretary of the Welsh teachers’ UCAC union; Kate Fallon leads the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP); Rowena McNamara is chair at the British Orthoptic Society Trade Union (BOS TU) and Julie Holden is chair of the West Bromwich Building Society Staff Union (SUWBBS).

In comparison, while the CBI has recently appointed its first ever woman leader — Carolyn Fairbairn replaced John Cridland at the helm of the employer’s organisation in November 2015 — there are just seven women leading Britain’s largest FTSE 100 companies (five female chief executive officers and two chairs), according to the latest (March 2015) Cranfield University Business School, Female FTSE Board Report 2015. 

Survey results

Women’s representation in top 10 UK unions

Union Women as share of membership Representation on national executive Representation on 
TUC delegation Share of full-time 
national officers
2014 2016 2014 2016 2013 2015 2014 2016
Unite 25% 25% 31% 29% 34% 38% 26% 29%
UNISON 74% 77% 64%* 61% 71% 68% 55% 54%
GMB 51% 49% 38% 38% 48% 46% 28% 56%
Usdaw 56% 55% 59% 50% 44% 47% 50% 50%
NUT 76% 76% 38% 41% 55% 64% 36% 66%
NASUWT 72% 73% 28% 28% 35% 36% 30% 30%
PCS 60% 58% 44% 40% 45% 43% 24% 23%
CWU 20% 19% 26% 31% 35% 26% 17% 10%
ATL 74% 74% n/a 50%** 48% 58% 20% 34%
Prospect 24% 26% 21% 26% 40% 42% 32% 37%

*UNISON 2014 NEC 64% figure would have been 69% but there were three vacant seats, including two reserved for women

** Includes officers but excludes three executive committee vacancies


While female trade union leaders are the most visible sign that women are rising up the union ranks, our survey also looks at whether unions are increasing the proportion of women in membership and achieving proportionality throughout their structures. We also compared the results to our last (2014) survey to map any progress. 

Women’s share of the membership has remained largely stable overall in the top 10 unions. But it has seen an increase from 74% to 77% at UNISON, with around 25,000 women joining the union since January 2015. UNISON women’s officer Sharon Greene told Labour Research: “There are leadership schools which women activists are encouraged to attend; a mentoring programme exists; and a new national training course on confidence skills for young women has been developed.” 

Greene added that “although it is not possible at this stage to measure the impact of such measures, the percentage of women members of the union has grown and now stands at 77% plus”, from an original estimate of around two-thirds when UNISON was created in 1993 from a merger of the three former public sector unions NALGO, NUPE and COHSE.

The proportion of women in membership has also risen at specialists’ union Prospect, from 24% to 26% since 2014. The union reports that it has continued to raise the profile of professional women in male-dominated industries though a range of initiatives. 

These have included a survey of women with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM-related) qualifications, looking at the barriers for women entering or returning to a career in STEM and what can be done to overcome them; raising awareness and promoting training on unconscious bias; and producing best practice guidance on attracting and recruiting women into STEM roles.

The NASUWT has also slightly increased the proportion of women members, from 72% to 73% since our last survey, and it reports that attendees to its annual consulation conference for women teachers are more likely to become active in the union. The proportion has held steady at Unite (25%), the NUT (76%) and the ATL (74%). But it has fallen slightly at the PCS, from 60% to 58%; retail union Usdaw, from 56% to 55%; the GMB general union from 51% to 49%; and the CWU communications union from 20% to 19%.

Union equality reps have played a part in recruiting and organising women workers. For example, the CWU reports that its equality reps have had a positive effect on involving women in the union. Thirty-five (33%) of its 106 equality reps are women — considerably higher than the proportion of women in membership. The NUT says it is currently surveying its local divisions and associations on the impact equality reps have had. 

As in 2014, no union in our survey has yet managed to achieve proportionality at all the levels our survey examines, although both Unite and Prospect are very close with both achieving proportionality in all areas apart from that of regional negotiating officials. 

NEC members

In 2014, three unions achieved proportionality in terms of women’s representation on their ruling national executive committee (NEC) — Unite, Usdaw and the CWU. In our 2016 survey, Unite and the CWU again achieved proportionality in this area and are this year joined by Prospect. Representation on Prospect’s NEC has risen from 21% in 2014 to 26%, now completely reflecting the proportion of women members in the union. 

At Unite, women make up 29% of the NEC members (compared with 25% of its membership) and the CWU has increased its women’s representation on the NEC from 26% in 2014 to 31% in 2016, compared to 19% of its membership. 

And while the NUT has not yet achieved proportionality in this area, it has increased the representation of women on its NEC from 38% to 41% (compared with 76% of its membership). The union also reported that has undertaken a review of executive representation — which will report to the NUT annual conference later this month — which focusses partly on the proportion of women on the NEC.

TUC delegations

What of the position regarding delegations to the annual TUC Congress? In our 2014 survey, three unions had achieved (and exceeded) proportionality in their delegations to the previous (2013) Congress: Unite, the CWU and Prospect. 

These unions again achieved proportionality in this area in our 2016 survey: women comprised 38% of Unite’s delegation, 26% of the CWU delegation and 42% of Prospect’s delegation. 

Both Unite and Prospect increased the proportion of women in their delegations, from 34% to 38% at Unite and from 40% to 42% at Prospect. 

In addition, the CWU reported that (anecdotally) more women are coming to the union’s annual women’s conference and that industrial delegations are now making it a condition that delegations are proportionate and must include at least one woman. 

The ATL, NUT and Usdaw all increased women’s representation in their TUC delegations since our previous survey. Usdaw commented that union rules allow for the appointment of additional women delegates to various conferences. They also give the executive council power to “take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that the union’s delegations to the TUC and the Labour Party comprise a gender balance which reflects the gender balance of the union’s membership as a whole”.

National officers

Two years ago, when it came to full-time national negotiators, only Unite and Prospect managed to achieve proportionality. In 2016, these two unions again achieved proportionality and were joined by the GMB. All three increased women’s representation in this area: from 26% to 29% at Unite; from 32% to 37% at Prospect; and a huge leap from 28% to 56% at the GMB (compared to 51% of its membership). 

Recognising the need for action, the GMB set up a National Women’s Task Force aimed at ensuring that the union’s profile at all levels of lay and GMB staff structures reflects the number of women members in the union. 

In an interim report to its 2014 Congress, the Task Force reported that it had analysed data on GMB staff, their job role and gender, and found that while women represented 55% of the GMB’s entire staff, only 28% of GMB’s officers were women.

The task force’s report to 2015 Congress revealed that, among other things, a new national policy allows its staff to gain the insight, knowledge and experience to be able to carry out an officer role within 12 months. And a mentoring programme is being implemented.

Meanwhile, Unite has set up assessment centres to recruit “Stand Down Officers” (SDOs — reps who temporarily act as officers) with priority given to selecting women and black and ethnic minority candidates to go forward to these centres. Successful candidates will be placed in a pool from which future SDOs will be selected. They will also be able to apply for regional officer posts and will be guaranteed an interview.

The NUT has not yet achieved proportionality in this area, but it too has made huge strides, increasing the proportion of women full-time national negotiators from 36% in 2014 to 66% in 2016, edging closer to the 76% of women in its membership.

UNISON’s Sharon Greene commented that while 54% of the union’s national negotiators are women, “there are many more women senior managers and department heads who do not have negotiating responsibilities”. 

Almost half (46%) of UNISON regional negotiators are women, although the union reported that again, this figure “does not reflect the true picture of women in high status posts in the regions”. 

Regional full-timers

The final area our survey examined was the proportion of women among regional full-time negotiators. In 2014, only the CWU achieved (and indeed exceeded) proportionality, with women comprising 33% of regional officials. Disappointingly, in this survey, this figure had fallen back to 10% in 2016 — although in 2012 the figure had been zero. Meanwhile, no other union achieved proportionality in this area. (Figures were not available at the GMB and Prospect).

The CWU reported that it is working to ensure that its structures “are much more reflective of the members that we serve and this means many more women being recognised and given a meaningful role”. 

Leadership programmes and other courses to inspire and encourage women are currently running. And the union is about to launch a new mentoring programme aimed at women (and black and minority ethnic members). This will focus on Royal Mail, and the people enrolled into it will be on full-time union facility time for three months. 

While the PCS didn’t achieve proportionality in this area, it has the highest proportion of women regional negotiating officials (48%), compared with 58% of its members, and compared with only 19% of regional officials in 2014.

The PCS head of equalities, Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah, told Labour Research: “We are committed to ensuring those members in groups currently under-represented in our union’s structures are encouraged and supported to play a full and active role.”

Overall, the survey results paint a mixed picture, with most progress achieving proportionality made on TUC delegations and among national negotiating officials.