Labour Research March 2020


Women leaders on the up?

The latest biennial Labour Research Women in Unions survey looks at whether women are reaching the top of Britain’s largest unions. 

Last month, the Scottish TUC (STUC) announced that Rozanne Foyer will become the first woman leader of the organisation in its 123-year history when she takes over as general secretary later this year.

Her appointment will mean all the trade union centres in Britain and Ireland will be led by women. 

Frances O’Grady has led the TUC since 2013, Patricia King is general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions and Shavanah Taj took over as acting secretary of the Wales TUC last month, the first person from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background to take on the role.

Labour Research conducts a survey of the largest 10 TUC unions every two years to monitor women’s membership and participation levels. These 10 unions account for around 88% of total TUC membership. 

They were asked to provide figures for women’s share of their membership, positions on national executive committees, participation in delegations to the annual TUC Congress and the proportion of full-time negotiating official (FTO) posts they make up at both regional and national levels. 

Women’s representation in top 10 UK unions

Union (by size) Women as share of membership Representation on national executive Representation on 
TUC delegation Share of full-time 
national officers
2018 2020 2018 2020 2017 2019 2018 2020
Unite 27% 27% 38% 38% 36% 33% 20% 19% (a)
UNISON 78% 78% 62%* 66% 65% 64% 50% 63% (b)
GMB 49% 50% 37% 48% 58% 40% 58% 47%
NEU 76% 
(ATL 74%) 76% 50% 
(ATL 48%) 50% 58% 
(ATL 57%) 45% 40% 27% (c)
Usdaw 55% 55% 47% 56% 54% 51% 33% 33%
NASUWT 74% 70% 33% 32% 36% 39% 44% 44%
CWU 20% 20% 29% 24% 32% 35% 19% 14%
PCS 59% 59% 43% 57% 46% 43% “fairly even” 48%
Prospect 27% 29% 24% 25% 38% 43% 31% 31% (d)
UCU 51% 52% 60% 70% 73% 67% 33% 65%

(a) Figure excludes dedicated women’s/equality officers. Unite national officer for equalities with responsibility for women is also a national industrial negotiating officer.

(b) 80% of UNISON general/assistant general secretaries are women.

(c) 58% of NEU strategic leadership team are women.

(d) Prospect negotiating areas are regionally based rather than nationally based. Breakdown is for all negotiating roles below deputy general secretary level.

Women now make up over half (52%) of TUC-affiliated union membership, but only 14 (29%) of its 48 affiliated unions currently have a woman leader. This is a slightly higher proportion than two years ago, when the figure was 28%. 

However, this slight increase is because there are now 48 rather than 50 unions affiliated to the TUC, not because there are more women leaders. In fact, by the end of the year there may be fewer.

Among the largest 10 unions, six have majority female memberships (see table). But there are only three women general secretaries — the same number as in the last Labour Research survey in 2018 — all leading education unions. 

Dr Mary Bousted remains joint general secretary of the NEU education union — a merger of the former NUT and ATL unions and the fourth biggest TUC-affiliated union — along with her male counterpart Kevin Courtney. 

At the NASUWT teaching union, Chris Keates is the longest-serving woman union general secretary with 15 years’ in the role. However, she will retire next month when Dr Patrick Roach, the union’s first BME person to become general secretary, takes over at the union’s annual conference. The new NASUWT president-elect will be a BME woman — Michelle Codrington-Rogers. 

Jo Grady was elected as the new general secretary of the lecturers’ UCU union in May 2019, succeeding Sally Hunt to lead the 10th largest TUC affiliate. Hunt was general secretary since its inception in 2007 but resigned in February 2019 due to health reasons. 

Changes in leadership are also afoot in unions outside the top 10. Members of the foodworkers’ BFAWU union, the 26th largest TUC affiliate, elected their first ever woman leader in October 2019. Sarah Woolley takes over from Ronnie Draper from 1 July 2020. However, the actors’ Equity union will lose its current woman leader later this year. Christine Payne, who has led the TUC’s 13th biggest union since 2005, will retire in October 2020. The process to replace her is currently underway. 


The latest Women in Unions survey found the gender split of most of the largest 10 unions has remained fairly stable, although women in specialists’ union Prospect now make up 29% of its members, up from 27% in 2018. There were also increases in the proportion of women members in the GMB general union (up from 49% to 50%) and the UCU (up from 51% to 52%). 

The proportion of women members in six unions — the Unite general, UNISON public services, Usdaw retail, CWU communications, PCS public and commercial services unions and the NEU, — remained the same as in 2018. 

The NEU figure was the same as its NUT section in 2018 and slightly higher than the figure for the ATL section (76% compared to 74%). The two unions continued as “sections” of the NEU and had separate reporting and separate conferences between formal amalgamation on 1 September 2017 and 31 December 2018. The NEU has been a single entity since 1 January 2019. 

In the NASUWT, the proportion of women fell from 74% to 70%.

National executive committees

Women may not be making progress in terms of leading unions, but there is good news from the latest survey on achieving proportionality on their union’s ruling bodies. UNISON’s rule book defines proportionality as “the representation of women and men in fair proportion to the relevant number of female and male members comprising the electorate”. 

Four unions in the survey already have women at least proportionately represented on their national executive committees (NECs), compared to only three in the 2018 survey, and two are now very close to achieving this. 

Usdaw joined Unite, the CWU and the UCU in achieving proportionality this year. Over half (55%) of Usdaw members are women and the union increased women’s representation on its NEC from 47% in 2018 to 56% in 2020. 

The CWU introduced new NEC strand posts for women, LGBT+, race and disability in 2019. These are elected by the membership and have full NEC voting rights. The number of women on the NEC increased from four to six “overnight” as a result of these new seats, the union reports. 

Just over half of UCU members (52%) are women and they now represent 70% of NEC members, an increase from 60% in 2018. 

Half of GMB members are women and it has almost achieved proportionality in this area, with women’s representation on the NEC increasing from 37% in 2018 to 48% in 2020. Similarly, 59% of PCS members are women and 57% of NEC members are now women — up from 43% in 2018. 

Following a consultation on introducing reserved seats for women on PCS’s NEC, the union’s 2019 conference agreed there should be further discussions to win support for structure and rule changes to achieve increased women’s representation on the NEC and other union bodies. 

PCS president Fran Heathcote says her main priority is improving women’s representation and wants to see the issue “high on the agenda at every level of PCS”. A plan for improving women’s representation in the union includes piloting new development training for women on confidence building, dealing with confrontation, standing for election and PCS structures. PCS branches are also being encouraged to discuss women’s representation at their meetings. 

TUC delegations

Turning to representation on TUC delegations, our survey found a drop in the number of unions achieving proportionality since 2018, from five to four. At last year’s Congress, only Unite, the CWU, Prospect and the UCU achieved this. 

The GMB achieved proportionality in the previous survey and was very close this time, with women making up 49% of delegates who identified as male or female — or 40% of all TUC delegates including those who identified as “other” or did not specify their gender. Fifty per cent of its members are women. 

There was a big increase in TUC delegates who, on registration, stated “other” or who preferred not to say or whose gender was left blank at the 2019 Congress compared to the 2017 one. Among unions in the Labour Research survey, only two delegates were identified as “other” in 2017, compared to 40 in the 2019 delegations. 

Union reps

Labour Research asked unions about any special measures they had introduced to encourage women’s participation in their lay structures since our last survey was carried out in 2018 and whether these have had an impact.

Unite has several initiatives to encourage its women members to become reps and branch officers and to support them once they have been elected. This includes the Unite Women Step Up campaign launched at the 2018 National Women’s Conference. 

And following a Unite construction sector survey of welfare facilities, the union reports that 15 women came forward wanting to become reps. 

The GMB holds national and regional women’s and equality conferences in order to encourage women’s participation, and several regions have introduced women-only training in an effort to get more women to come forward and participate more fully. 

Usdaw has seen women go on to become more active and take up lay member roles after taking part in its campaigns on tackling sexual harassment and supporting parents and carers. 

The NASUWT has “a detailed programme of work to increase the representation of women in its structures”. And it reports that its campaign to tackle sexual harassment “is providing a further spur to action to empower women members and to remove barriers to women’s participation”. 

Its monitoring reveals that the number of women being elected to activist roles has increased by 15%. For example, the proportion of women branch secretaries rose from 32% in January 2016 to 46% in January 2020. 

Union officials

The survey findings on whether women are entering the ranks of unions’ full-time national and regional negotiating officials are also disappointing, although unions are taking action to try to address internal gender imbalances. 

Not all unions were able to provide figures on women’s representation among their national and regional negotiators (see table), but from the figures available, it appears that only the UCU and Prospect achieved proportionality. 

This is a drop from 2018 when three unions in the survey achieved proportionality among their national negotiators. 

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of UCU full time bargaining negotiating officials (BNOs) are female, up from 33% in 2018, and that figure will increase to 70% when another woman BNO joins later this month. 

Just under a third (31%) of Prospect’s negotiator roles below deputy general secretary level are held by women compared to 29% of its membership. 

The union’s negotiating areas are based regionally rather than nationally and it has a programme of developing people within their roles. 

Three unions are also very close to achieving proportionality among their regional negotiators. At the CWU, although there are no women regional secretaries, there are four women assistant regional secretaries throughout the union’s 10 regions. Women therefore make up 20% of these regional negotiators, matching the proportion of women in membership, although the assistant regional secretary posts are not full time.

Women make up 25% of these officials at Unite compared to 27% of its membership. Initiatives to increase the number of women officials included a training session on women’s organising and future organising in Unite Scotland. 

This saw two young women activists recruited to fill temporary organiser vacancies, and several more are undertaking shadowing and mentoring to build their confidence. 

A positive action initiative to encourage more women and BAME members to apply for officer roles means these groups can apply for jobs across all regions, rather than just in their own region. 

In most cases, women’s representation among full-time national negotiators has remained stable or fallen (see table). However, UNISON bucked the trend, increasing women’s representation from 50% to 63% of national negotiators. Dave Prentis currently leads the union, but four of its five assistant general secretaries are women. 

The GMB is trying to address the gender imbalance among its senior managers. It piloted a high-level, nine-month women in leadership programme for women employees in 2019.