Labour Research March 2022


What’s the outlook for women in our unions?

The biennial Labour Research survey of women’s representation and participation in unions takes stock of what progress unions are making in this area.

Women now make up around half of TUC membership (see box). And the elections last year of women to lead the UK’s two biggest unions — Christina McAnea at the UNISON public services union and Sharon Graham at the Unite general union — has massively boosted their visibility at the top of the trade union movement.

TUC Membership

Male 2,209,728
Female 2,571,894
Other* 554,978
Total 5,336,600

Women make up 48% of total membership, or 54% of members excluding “Other”*.

*Other: those who did not respond, preferred not to say, or expressed another gender identity.

But how do women fare when it comes to participating throughout unions, as activists in lay structures and as full-time officers (FTOs)? Every two years, Labour Research conducts a unique survey of the largest 10 TUC unions to help answer this question.

We ask the 10 largest unions to provide figures for women’s share of their membership, positions on their national executive committee (NEC — the highest committee in the union concerned with running its affairs), participation in delegations to the annual TUC Congress, and the proportion of full-time negotiating officer positions they make up at both national and regional level.

This year the Prospect specialists’ union was unable to take part in the survey due to capacity issues. The remaining nine unions account for around 85% of total TUC membership.

McAnea and Graham’s election wins have increased the number of women general secretaries leading top 10 unions from three in 2020 to four currently.

The joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, Mary Bousted, shares her role with Kevin Courtney, and Jo Grady leads the UCU college and university union. Since our last survey, Chris Keates retired as general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union and was succeeded by the union’s first black leader, Patrick Roach, in 2020.

Changes in leadership outside the 10 largest unions include Christine Payne who retired as leader of the Equity actors’ union in 2020. Its current general secretary is Paul Flemming.

Women in Unions survey results

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
2020 2022 2020 2022 2019 2021 2020 2022
UNISON 78% 76% 66% 68% 64% 65% 63% 42%
Unite 27% 28% 38%* 36% 33% 45% 19% 33%
GMB 50% 50% 48% 51% 40% 46% 47% N/A
NEU 76% 77% 50% 60% 45% 70% 27% 26%
Usdaw 55% 55% 56% 41% 51% 70% 33% 20%
NASUWT 70% 74% 32% 44% 39% 50% 44% 29%
CWU 20% 20% 24% 31% 35% 41% 14% 13%
PCS 59% 58% 57% 43% 43% 57% 48% 33%
Prospect 29% 29%(a) 25% (b) 43% (b) 31% (b)
UCU 52% 53% 70% 63% 67% 69% 65% 100%

Percentages are rounded up or down to the nearest whole number

*As reported to TUC January 2021.

(a) Prospect figure for women as a share of membership taken from membership figures in January 2021 reported to the TUC.

(b) Union unable to supply figures due to capacity issues.


The latest Women in Unions survey found the gender split of top 10 unions — where seven of the 10 largest unions now have majority female memberships — has remained fairly stable (see table on page 10).

The NASUWT saw the biggest change, with women’s share of its membership increasing from 70% to 74%. There were slight increases at:

• Unite (27% to 28%);

• NEU (76% to 77%); and

• UCU (52% to 53%).

There were small decreases at:

• UNISON (78% to 76%); and

• the PCS civil service union (59% to 58%).

Figures stayed the same at the GMB (50%), and the Usdaw retail (55%) and CWU communications unions (20%).


So, is female membership fairly reflected on union ruling bodies, and are unions achieving proportionality here? This, as UNISON’s rule book explains, means “the representation of women and men in fair proportion to the relevant number of female and male members comprising the electorate”.

National executive committee

Four unions, Unite, GMB, CWU and UCU, achieved proportionality on their national executive committee, the same number as in 2020.

The GMB and CWU also increased the percentage of women on their NECs. For the GMB, this was from 48% to 51% compared to 50% of members. The CWU increased its percentage from 24% to 31% compared to 20% of members.

In April 2021, as part of efforts to achieve proportional representation on the NEC, the CWU introduced new rules guaranteeing extra seats for women lay members. This has increased women’s representation from two to eight seats.

“Increasing women’s representation and visibility in national executive roles has had a positive impact on women becoming more active in the union,” the CWU told Labour Research.

“The CWU’s latest proportionality audit found that between 2020 and 2021 there has been a significant rise of CWU women lay members elected into trade union representative positions.”

Although it didn’t manage to achieve proportionality in this area, UNISON saw an increase from 66% to 68% compared to 76% of members; at the NEU the figure rose from 50% to 60% compared to 77% of members; and it went up from 32% to 44% compared to 74% of membership at the NASUWT.

TUC delegations

All nine unions in this year’s survey saw an increase in the proportion of women in their delegations to (the online) TUC Congress last year compared to 2019. Four unions achieved proportionality, the same number as in our last survey.

Women made up 45% of the TUC delegation at Unite, compared to 33% in 2019. At Usdaw, the proportion of women delegates increased from 51% to 70%, while 41% of CWU delegates were women, up from 35%. At the UCU, representation increased from 67% to 69%.

Although the NEU did not achieve proportionality here, it saw the proportion of women on its delegation jump from 45% to 70%.

Following its executive’s 2021 annual equality audit,it is putting a rule change to this year’s conference to introduce “guarded places” (50%) for women on conference delegations.

Full-time national officers

While the survey shows unions have made progress in terms of achieving proportionality in lay structures, the results are again disappointing when it comes to women joining the ranks of union FTOs.

At national level, only two unions are achieving proportionality, the same number as in 2020. And in most unions, women’s share of national negotiating FTO posts fell. Only Unite and the UCU bucked this trend.

At the UCU, the figure leapt from 65% in 2020 to 100% in the current survey. The union has three national negotiating official roles in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and all three are now women.

Unite, meanwhile, increased its share of women national FTOs from 19% to 33%. And although 26% of NEU national FTOs are women, this increases to 73% of its strategic leadership team.

Regional officials

At regional level, the survey results are more positive — in our 2020 survey, no union achieved proportionality.

This year, for example, the CWU, achieved proportionality here, with 20% of CWU regional secretaries now women, compared to none in 2020.

And the union’s proportion of regional assistant secretaries increased from 20% to 40%, while 40% of regional chairs and 38% of regional principal officers are also women.

The UCU was only one per cent away from achieving proportionality among its regional FTOs, with 52% — an increase from 40% in the previous survey.

The PCS is also close to achieving proportionality in this area, with 55% of regional FTOs now women, compared to 58% of members.

Twenty-nine per cent of Usdaw regional and deputy regional secretaries are women, but the figure increases to 40% of area organisers.

Union measures

Our survey also asked unions about special measures they have introduced to increase the participation of women members since 2020, and about developments linking gender with other equality strands.


At Unite, Graham “made her equality commitments clear” in her election manifesto. These include bringing together representatives from each equalities area, including women, to agree priorities to form an overarching equalities plan.

Every industrial plan agreed by combines will include equalities bargaining targets, and the union will dedicate resources to organising in employers and sectors with the highest density of women, black and ethnic minority, disabled, LGBT+ and young workers.

Meanwhile, Unite’s Get Me Home Safely campaign in hospitality has been extended to all sectors.

This challenges employers to put provisions in place for those working after 11pm, including workplace agreements on supplementary taxi travel, and calls for free transport home to be a prerequisite for new liquor licenses.

The union has also relaunched its Black Women’s Network.


Since last year, the GMB reports, women activists from each region have met regularly online in a national women’s strand network to share skills, organise and contribute to campaign planning.

A particular focus has been the menopause and women workers’ health — the union launched a menopause toolkit in 2021. It is planning a targeted recruitment campaign to increase the number of women health and safety reps this year and its newly established women’s campaign unit “will fight for economic justice for working women”, focussing on equal pay, pay justice, health and safety, and pensions.

Last year, GMB women activists led several national online events covering trans women’s experiences at work, women and neurodiversity, and migrant women workers’ lives.


A 2020 Usdaw survey of several hundred new parents found 92% of women members cut their leave short, nine out of 10 doing so because they ran out of money. Each year, the union holds a campaign day called Supporting Parents and Carers Campaign Spotlight Day and, following these findings, the theme of the union’s 2021 campaign day was Parents Under Pressure.

This focused on the pressures disproportionately experienced by women during the pandemic, including juggling paid work with home schooling; trying to fit work around new and shorter school hours; and carers stepping in to fill the gaps created by disruption to routine care and health services.

The union has also run webinars covering topics of particular interest to women members, including supporting your child’s emotional wellbeing and domestic abuse and the workplace.


The concept of intersectionality — the ways in which systems of inequality based on, for example, gender, race and sexual orientation “intersect” — remains an important one for unions.

The CWU says that “without an intersectional lens, our efforts to tackle inequalities and injustice towards women are likely to just end up perpetuating systems of inequalities”. It brings together its four equality strands (women, black and minority ethnic, disabled and LGBT+) through regular meetings and discussing a broad range of equality issues to “develop inclusive equality priorities and strategies”.


Intersectionality is also “very important” for the PCS. The union’s national disabled members forum produced a November 2021 edition of the Disability Matters journal, focusing on the links between disability, gender and race and the multiple discrimination faced by women members.

The union encourages women to get involved in its regional women’s networks, which are open to reps and members.

As well as discussing issues faced by women members, they provide an opportunity to explain how women can participate in the union by, for example, becoming an “advocate”.

PCS advocates are members who actively support the union and want to get involved, but don’t want to be a rep. It is the next step for members interested in union activity, and their role is to help build the strength of the union where they work.

The union’s Pathways for Women course aims to equip women members with an understanding of issues faced in the workplace and the importance of female representation within PCS.

The national campaign on pay, pensions and the cost of living is particularly important for women members, who are among the lowest paid and in part-time and insecure roles. This will be discussed widely during 2022, including at the national women members’ seminar and during Women’s History Month this month.

Union staff

When it comes to unions’ own recruitment processes, the UCU ensures its recruitment panel has a gender mix and that the recruitment and selection process is as free from (unconscious) bias as possible.

Anything that can personally identify a candidate’s gender is removed prior to shortlisting. It also aims to make job adverts and other recruitment materials reflect its “desire for a diverse and inclusive culture”.

At the PCS, a restructure during the pandemic means several promotional opportunities will be open to all paid officials and the union will encourage women officials to apply for these roles.

UNISON runs the Garrett Anderson programme for staff. This aims to help women focus on their careers, build greater confidence and gain the skills they need to progress. Thirty-four women took part in the 2021 programme.

The GMB, meanwhile, repeated its successful Women in Leadership programme for a group of women employees last year.

The NASUWT says it has introduced “a raft of initiatives since 2020”, including mandatory training for line managers and mandatory equality training for national executive members.

It has a gender equality action plan which aims to increase the representation of women on the union’s staff. And it has set up a women’s staff forum and adopted an action plan to tackle sexual harassment and misogyny in the workplace and in its own structures.

The NEU’s April 2020 gender pay gap report shows the union “achieved our most significant improvement to date in reducing our gender gap” and expects the gap to narrow still further due to the appointment of several women senior managers who have replaced previous male post-holders.

The report includes a pay gap action plan. This involves initiatives to improve diversity data recording and monitoring and recruitment practices such as anonymised shortlisting and a guaranteed interview scheme.

The union also has a rolling programme of mandatory training for managers — including on diversity and inclusion — as well as an in-house mentoring programme. And it says it has reviewed and improved its flexible family-friendly working arrangements and welcomes applications from people seeking part-time, job share or other flexible working arrangements.

In addition, in consultation with its recognised unions, it is developing a women’s health policy and rolling out TUC-endorsed sexual harassment training.

The NEU is also taking steps to close its ethnicity pay gap, including first consideration of applications for sponsorship towards the Chartered Management Institute leadership and management programme from black and/or female staff who are currently under-represented in management roles.

This year’s survey shows unions have some way to go before women are fully represented throughout their lay structures and among their ranks of FTOs. However, there has been further progress in most areas since our last survey in 2020.

A raft of measures unions have put into place should improve the picture still further over the coming months.