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Focus: Equality - Men rule the union roost

Few women are allowed access to the top jobs
It was a feminist tour de force. A woman delegate at the Scottish Trades Union Congress told the ranks of portly male activists how they should get their own house in order before talking of equality in industry.

Unions stood for fairness, yet routinely discriminated against women, she told them. How could they hector employers about their prejudices when they were as bad, if not worse themselves? There was a moment's silence after she sat down. Then one union official - overcome with feelings induced by comradeship and whisky - shouted: "Good on yer hen."

That was 10 years ago, and things have not changed much in the union movement. A strongly masculine "boozer" sub-culture, which varies from the paternalistic to the downright nasty, prevails. The men who run the movement still conduct business by mulling over policy while downing a few pints. Women, said one senior female official, "are routinely victimised by men".

There is bullying in unions. Many male officials have a table-thumping approach to negotiating with employers and they apply that in their dealings with staff and colleagues. The result is that trade unions have been left behind in the attempt to create a more equal society. Take Unison, a soft-focus "inclusive" title chosen with women in mind. The public sector union with a 70 per cent female membership has a strong representation of women at middle management, and is seen as one of the most progressive. The problem starts higher up in the 1.3 million-strong organisation.

When Unison's general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe got the top job, he said that a woman would be appropriate to lead the union. Last week Mr Bickerstaffe announced he was to retire after 13 years in the job - and still no woman has reached a senior position within Unison. Although the newly elected president is 40-year-old Kent-based nurse Anne Picking, her post is primarily ceremonial.

Yet a few years back there were prominent women union leaders. Three were general secretaries, and have all since joined the House of Lords - and have been replaced by men. Brenda Dean, late of print union Sogat, is now Baroness Dean of Thornton-Le-Fylde. Liz Symons, formerly of the First Division Association for senior civil servants, is now Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, and Diana Warwick of the Association of University Teachers has been elevated as Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe.

Apart from Christine Hancock at the Royal College of Nursing - which is not part of the "official" union movement because it is not affiliated to the TUC - there are no female general secretaries of large or influential unions. Of the bigger unions, 36 per cent of the GMB's membership is female but only two out of 27 senior posts are filled by women. The Transport and General Workers' Union does better. It has five out of its top 19 posts occupied by women to represent a 880,000-strong membership, of which 19.8 per cent are women. And it can boast a female deputy general secretary in Margaret Prosser who is the most senior woman in the movement and treasurer of the Labour Party.

But leaders in many unions go for sharp working-class lads who are prepared to come up through the shop floor. As one woman put it: "It's partly a generational thing. Most of the senior officials are middle-aged men. Younger men are much more supportive of their women colleagues." Unions are clearly missing a trick. Some 28 per cent of female workers are union members compared with 31 per cent of men, and they now make up nearly half the workforce. Yet only eight of the TUC unions are led by women, and those are small organisations with overwhelmingly female memberships.

Feminists argue that if trade union membership is to grow, unions need female officials to ensure they are meeting prospective members' needs.

"Because unions tend to be dominated by men, they have a distorted view of what issues concern members," one senior woman official said. "Although in recent years they have taken on board the need to address issues such as flexible working, there is less change when it comes to their macho style of internal management."

The TUC is trying to redress the balance through its Organising Academy which trains young people, at least half of whom are women, to become union recruiters and negotiators. John Monks, its general secretary, hopes they will form the union elite of the future.

Meanwhile it's business as usual. Or as one northern activist put it to a prospective union member: "Don't you worry yourself, there's no sexism in this union, pet."