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The Impact of Increased Female Trade Union Membership

By Solicitor, Employment

Over recent years, union membership among women has increased significantly to the point where we now have more women than men who are current members of a trade union.

In fact, the average union member today is a woman in her 40s working in the public sector. This was certainly not the case 20 or 30 years ago and it shows that women are “taking a stand” and joining trade unions in order to get their voices heard.

The rising numbers of female trade union members could mean that there will be increased awareness of many of the issues faced by women in the work place such as harassment, the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination.

In my work as an Employment Lawyer, I regularly advise female employees who have been treated unfairly at work – many of whom have been harassed, paid unfairly because of their gender or discriminated against because of pregnancy or maternity.

All too often, we hear from working mothers who have been side lined after announcing their pregnancies or from those who are overlooked for promotion or had their managerial responsibilities are taken away. Sadly, we also get contacted by many women who find that when they return to work, after maternity leave, their job has either changed, been given to their maternity cover or isn’t there anymore. 

Fortunately, some of these women will be union members and can benefit from advice and assistance from their union at an early stage. Some will not be union members and often come to us after the situation has escalated.

It is important to note that it is unlawful to discriminate against women because of their sex or because of their pregnancy or a pregnancy related illness or their maternity leave. Surprisingly, many employers overlook this or are not fully aware of their duties under employment legislation. As a result, many women are left in a difficult and vulnerable position.

As Employment lawyers, we work either on behalf of or in conjunction with trade unions in order to challenge employers who treat their employees or workers unfairly. We also negotiate settlements for employees and workers who are concerned about sex, pregnancy and maternity discrimination or equal pay and bring claims on behalf of these individuals where necessary.

It is my hope that with a higher percentage of female workers in trade unions than ever before, we are moving a step closer to eradicating harassment, maternity and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and bridging the gender pay gap because more women are taking a firm stand with the unions to help “stamp out” discrimination.

Recent success stories from female trade unionists tackling issues faced by women in the workplace include:

  • Hospital cleaners going on a one-day strike to protest against a multinational private contractor called Aramark paying them less than the London living wage.
  • A campaign calling for increased wages for all Topshop staff was led by two female cleaners who were members of the United Voices of the World trade union.
  • Teaching assistants in County Durham staging a demonstration to raise awareness about their council’s plans to make them redundant and requiring them to reapply for their jobs at 77 per cent of their original pay.

Whilst the recent upturn in women joining trade unions will better enable us to highlight the equalities issues affecting women, there is still a long way to go. In my view, a cultural and societal change is needed in order to alter the way women are perceived and to ensure women and men are treated equally at work. Until then, it is important to continue campaigning and focusing on ways to improve the situation for future generations.

The Trades Union Congress is holding its women’s conference on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2017, which should help to keep issues affecting women in the workplace central to trade union campaigning.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers have been defending the rights of trade union members for generations. For expert legal advice or immediate representation call us on freephone 0800 916 9084 or contact us online and we will be happy to help.

Marsha Thompson is an Employment Lawyer with extensive experience of representing members of trade unions. She is based at Slater and Gordon Lawyers’ London office.

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