Labour Research March 2018


What’s the outlook for trade union women?

Although change at the top level is slow, unions continue their efforts to ensure women are fairly represented throughout their structures.

Women now constitute a majority of the UK’s trade union membership, and this is reflected in membership of TUC-affiliated unions where they now account for 52% overall. 

On one level, this change is made visible in the form of the head of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, who has been the organisation’s general secretary since 2013. But this feminisation of the movement does not extend to the leadership of individual unions. Of the current 50 unions affiliated to the TUC (counting the recently-formed NEU teaching union as two as it still has two sections and two general secretaries), only 14 — or 28% — have female general secretaries. And half of those women lead unions with fewer than 10,000 members.

Change is inevitably slow at the top level, as general secretary elections normally only come around every five years. But it is disappointing that the proportion of new female leaders is actually slightly lower than the 29% figure of two years ago.

Labour Research conducts a survey of the largest 10 TUC unions every two years to monitor women’s membership and participation levels. This year they appear as 11 unions, as the NUT and ATL sections of the NEU are counted separately. These 11 unions, accounting for 88% of TUC membership, were asked to provide figures for women’s share of membership, positions on national executive committees, delegations and full-time official (FTO) posts.

Union (by size) Women as share of membership Representation on national executive Representation on 
TUC delegation Share of full-time 
national officers
2016 2018 2016 2018 2015 2017 2016 2018
Unite 25% 27% 29% 38% 38% 36% 29% 20%
UNISON 77% 78% 61%* 62% 68% 65% 54% 50%
GMB 49% 49% 38% 37% 46% 58% 56% 58%
Usdaw 55% 55% 50% 47% 47% 54% 50% 33%
NEU (NUT section) 
NASUWT 73% 74% 28% 33% 36% 36% 30% 44%
PCS 58% 59% 40% 43% 43% 46% 23% 50%**
CWU 19% 20% 31% 29% 26% 32% 10% 19%
NEU (ATL section) 
Prospect 26% 27% 26% 24% 42% 38% 37% 31%
UCU 51% 51% n/a 60% 42% 73% n/a 33%

* includes officers but excludes three executive committee vacancies

** approx. Described by union as “fairly even”


The survey indicates that the gender split of these largest unions has changed marginally in the last two years. Six of them (general union Unite, public services unions UNISON and PCS, teaching union NASUWT, the CWU communications union and specialists’ union Prospect) have seen their proportion who are women slightly increase, while in the other five the gender balance has remained constant.

Seven of the unions have a majority female membership, but only three of them have a woman at the helm. These are the NASUWT, headed by Chris Keates, the ATL, led by Dr Mary Bousted, and the UCU university and college lecturers’ union, headed by Sally Hunt. None of the male-dominated unions have a female general secretary.

National executive

In terms of unions’ national executive bodies, the position is also rather disappointing, as only three unions have women at least proportionately represented. One is newcomer to the survey, UCU, which boasts a 60% female national executive committee (NEC), more than exceeding its 51% female membership. Another is the CWU, where women account for 29% of NEC members compared with 20% in overall membership. The third is Unite, where the executive council (EC) is 38% female compared with 27% in the membership at large. The union’s rules insist on proportionate representation of women (and ethnicity) on all its constitutional committees. But Unite has exceeded this on its EC in all our surveys since the union was formed (from the TGWU and Amicus). 

The latest figure is higher than the 29% recorded in 2016, which the union puts down partly to the general promotion and development of women’s involvement in the union, especially getting “more women reps/union equality reps in male-dominated industries [and] ensuring women are supported to become shop stewards and safety reps”.

Prospect is very close to proportionality on its national executive committee, which is 24% female compared with 27% in membership. However, the NEC figure is slightly lower than in 2016 (26%), while the proportion of women in membership has increased slightly (27% compared with 26%).

Between 2016 and 2018, women’s share of national executive positions has risen in UNISON, the NUT, the NASUWT and PCS but has yet to fully reflect the numbers in membership. 

TUC delegations

A second measure of women’s participation in the higher echelons of union activity is their inclusion in delegations to TUC annual Congress. The TUC has a standing order requiring unions with 100,000 women members to include at least one woman in their delegation, and this currently applies to Unite, UNISON, GMB, NUT, ATL, shopworkers’ union Usdaw and NASUWT. 

There has been slightly more success for women in this area than on national executive bodies. Five unions (Unite, GMB, CWU, Prospect and lecturers’ union UCU) sent at least a proportionate number of women to last year’s Congress, and Usdaw almost did so. 

This is a better showing than for the 2015 Congress, when only three unions made the grade. Five unions (GMB, Usdaw, PCS, CWU and UCU) have increased the proportion of women on their delegations since then.

Participation in lay structures

Labour Research asked these 11 unions what efforts they had made in the past two years to increase levels of participation in their lay structures. Measures taken include structural changes, provision of targeted training and production of campaigns and literature.

Unions making structural efforts to involve more women include the NEU (NUT section), which has set up a national organising forum for women comprising women reps from each of the NUT’s regions, and Unite, which is currently establishing a Unite Women Transport Workers Working Group. 

The PCS is likely to consider significant steps at its conference this year on improving inclusion and tackling under-representation of women and minority groups in the union. Officials are currently consulting with members and activists on measures in this area following a conference resolution in 2017. 

In other unions, established women’s events continue to encourage women into roles. One is the NASUWT, which says its number of women local secretaries and negotiating secretaries has “significantly increased” since the 2016 Labour Research survey. 

It points to annual consultation conferences for women which “have encouraged women to become more active within the union at senior levels”. It also says that participation in its Women’s Development courses “has increased the engagement of women within the union”.

The ATL similarly says its National Women’s conferences (most recently held in January 2018) generate interest among women members in becoming equality reps, attending TUC conferences and become more involved in union activity.

Usdaw has, since 2015, held a national “get-together” for women activists, which allows the union to hear at first hand the views of women who are not necessarily linked in to the union’s equalities structures or equalities work. 

The union’s equality officer, Jo Bird, says: “This dialogue is incredibly helpful and has informed our work over the last 12 months on several issues including better understanding the pressures women members face.” It has held a similar, regional event in the North East.

The get-togethers also give women activists the opportunity to come together, identify priorities and share their ideas and experience, which “strengthens the link between women activists and the union,” says Bird. While the union does not have statistical evidence of the impact of these events, “we have seen women go on to become more active and take up lay member roles as a result of taking part”.

Many unions run training courses aimed at encouraging and supporting women activists. UNISON says its leadership courses targeted at women and Black members are particularly important for this. 

Unite has taken the step of employing an equalities education specialist tutor, who teaches and produces education materials, organises national courses and coordinates the union’s National Women’s Week. There are also regional courses to encourage women members’ involvement, such as one in the West Midlands region designed to build women’s confidence and give them practical tools to reach their goals. 

The union says that, since the last Labour Research survey, there has been an increase in the number of women in post as stewards, workplace reps and branch officers. In particular, there are more women reps/union equality reps in male-dominated industries, partly as a result of these training initiatives.

The UCU has taken a range of steps to encourage the participation of women (and members of other equality strands) in the union. It has produced publications, including Diversity in participation: why it matters and how to promote it, and General tools for equality — guidance on ensuring that equality is central to the work of branches and in wider union structures. It has also produced a film (A woman’s place is in the union) to raise the profile of women in the movement. 


While many unions have for years put great effort into addressing issues faced by women at work, they are now drilling down further so that the concerns of specific groups of women, who may face discrimination on multiple grounds, are not left out. This is sometimes known in equality circles as “intersectionality”.

In this vein, the PCS has been developing “pan-equality” regional networks “to encourage under-represented groups and share cross-cutting issues”. This follows successful pan-equality regional seminars held in 2016-17. 

A conference resolution noted that “these events provided valuable feedback” on how to involve members of under-represented groups in union activity”, and called for the development of regional pan-equality structures.

Other unions are tweaking their existing equality structures to ensure that such intersectional concerns are addressed. For example, in UNISON, liaison representatives are elected from the Black, disabled, LGBT and young women’s groups to sit on the national women’s committee. The union says this has ensured that cross-cutting equality issues are considered. 

Meanwhile the UCU points out that its introduction of an equality reps conference has helped foster collaboration between members of its equality sub-committees on joint issues. And the NASUWT’s consultation conferences for under-represented groups include sessions discussing intersectional issues, such as the targeting by employers of older women teachers for capability procedures and redundancy.

In other unions, the intersecting issues have arisen through their normal equality procedures. So this year, Unite’s Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) conference will include a discussion and workshop on “Encouraging Involvement of Black Women”, and the ATL’s recent women’s conference included workshops on black women in education and the lack of their representation in leadership positions. Prospect is currently embarking on a project for BAME equality, which will include equality for BAME women.

Full-time officials

While unions find many ways to encourage women into lay activity, they appear to have less room for manoeuvre to influence the profile of their FTOs. This is indicated in our survey by the low proportions of female FTOs compared to memberships.

Only three unions out of the top 11 have achieved proportionality in their ranks of national FTOs. The CWU nearly makes the grade, having seen a substantial increase in its proportion of women FTOs, from 10% to 19%, compared with 20% in membership. The GMB figure has risen from 56% to 58%, well above the 49% of women in membership. And in Prospect, 31% of national FTOs are women, compared with 27% in membership (although this has slipped slightly from the 37% of two years ago). 

In the UCU — newly included in the unions in the survey — while just over half of members are women, this only applies to a third of national FTOs. However, the union more than achieves proportionality in its regional FTO ranks, 58% of whom are female. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the union is introducing a staff women’s network this year.

UNISON’s 50:50 gender split of national FTOs means it does not reach proportionality compared with the 78% female membership, and the figure has dipped slightly since 2016. However, women’s officer Sharon Greene notes that “there are many more women in senior roles in our HQ who are not negotiators”, such as department heads. 

Three unions, while not yet achieving proportionality, have seen a rise in their proportion of female national FTOs since 2016. These are the NASUWT, where the percentage of female national FTOs jumped from 30% to 44%, ATL (34% to 40%) and PCS (23% to “fairly even”, according to the union).

The largest union, Unite, has disappointingly seen a slippage in its share of full-time national officers who are women. However, this figure should improve over the coming year due to a novel effort to give progression opportunities to those a little lower down the chain: two vacant national officer positions are, for the next 12 months, each being filled on a rotating basis by three acting national officers. 

The appointees came from the ranks of regional officers, and, in each case, two of the three are women. The union says the aim is “to afford a wider number of regional officers the opportunity to work at national officer level”. 

At regional secretary level, Unite now has a more-than-proportionate complement, as 30% are female compared with the 27% in membership. However, the overall female regional officer complement is still slightly below par at 20% of the total.

In an effort at improving diversity among regional FTOs, Unite has loosened its criteria for people applying for officer roles. Normally applicants must reside in the region the job holder will work in, but this requirement is waived for women and black and Asian applicants.

And Unite can boast some success from a programme reported in the 2016 Labour Research survey. This involved women and black and Asian candidates being prioritised in a system for recruiting “stand down officers” (SDOs) — reps who temporarily act as officers. Candidates who successfully passed an assessment were placed in a pool from which future SDOs were to be selected. 

“As a result of this initiative we have recruited seven women into regional positions,” the union says.