Trade Unions Lead the Way on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights

This week, the Westminster village has been very interested in David Cameron’s reshuffle of the Conservative personnel in the Government. Cameron is not daft, and he has quite cleverly signalled to UKIP voters a Eurosceptic turn, while for the casual observer the influx of a few more women and the removal of some older men might make the Tories look a bit more electorally appealing.

Women remain under-represented in the Cabinet of course, and women continue to be judged by a different standard to men. The Daily Mail attracted widespread criticism for reporting women walking down Downing Street to assume Cabinet positions as if they were walking down the red carpet at the Oscars. There is still a long way to go before women are judged on their professional merits.    

Ultimately we know that what matters is what Government’s do, not who holds ministerial office. You can’t always read off what someone will do based on their individual characteristics. For example, Tony Benn was born into the establishment but in his later political career he championed the cause of working people. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman prime minister, but she did nothing to improve the lot of other women.     

So should we be indifferent about the class and gender make-up of the Government? No, I think it does matter. Both Benn and Thatcher were, in very different ways, quite extraordinary figures, and they might be best seen as exceptions that prove the rule. We have experienced the callous disregard for ordinary working people of the current Government – one dominated by millionaire men who went to Eton. It says something about the prejudices and biases of the Government that the new Education Secretary was privately educated, and the new Housing Minister is a private landlord. Parliament remains dominated by men (77%) and we know that it has never adequately addressed issues that affect women. Men continue to hold the vast majority of senior positions in key institutions across Greater Manchester, as described by Jen Williams in the Evening News.  

The labour movement has been much better than other institutions in representing women. Women comprise 34% of the Parliamentary Labour Party – not enough, but a higher percentage than the other parties. UNISON has led the way with the principle of proportionality in ensuring that women play a full role in our union.

I know that from my own experience as a young low-paid female carer staring out in the world of work that I was encouraged to develop and assume leadership responsibility within the union. I can’t imagine that happening in other institutions.      

We should never be complacent and there is more to do, but UNISON and other unions are pretty successful in having spokespeople and leaders who are representative of their members. 

We need all our institutions to better reflect society at large. That way, a greater range of interests and knowledge will be taken into account in decision-making, to the benefit of us all. 

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