Mechanisms for Increasing Women’s Participation in Unions: Education, Policies, Quotas and Budgets

• Sally Choi, Project Coordinator, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), Hong Kong
• Khamati Mugalla, Executive Secretary, East Africa Trade Union Confederation, (EATUC), Kenya
• Rosana Sousa de Deus, Executive Committee, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Brazil

Kate Doherty, Solidarity Center Deputy Executive Director

Kate Doherty opened the workshop by noting it will include participant and panelist discussion of successful and not so successful strategies for increasing women’s participation in unions.

Sally Choi began with a quick overview of the HKTCU, which represents an equal number of women and men. Fifteen percent of HKTCU’s 29-member Executive Committee is women, indicating low involvement of women in union leadership.

Looking at ways to increase women’s participation in leadership, HKTCU devoted a year to discussing whether it should establish a quota system. Some expressed concern that quotas would be unfair to male members and some women believed quota positions (seats set aside for women) were inferior. The union ultimately adopted a quota system for its Executive Committee, including a mandate that a maximum of four seats be reserved for women candidates.

However, the quota system proved unpopular among members because the quotas were underutilized—there was no large increase of female nominations from affiliates, or significant change in affiliate leadership. Structural problems also worked against the quota system—low leadership turnover prohibited new candidates from running for office and no additional resources were allocated to the women’s committee for leadership building and gender training.

Further, class differences emerged among female unionists. Women from white-collar professional unions (university, teachers, flight attendants) believe the women’s committee and quotas are not relevant to them.  The women’s committee is dominated by blue-collar workers—domestic workers and those in the cleaning, textile and clothing industries who support the quota.

See her full presentation.

Khamati Mugalla centered her discussion around the metaphor of a tree to convey how women learn their roles in trade unions. The roots, she said, supply nourishment, that is, socialization. A union must examine the customs of behavior by understanding that they are:

• Passed from generation to generation (older members)
• Storytelling—stories about great trade unionists. (if no women leaders, heroines, then no model)
• Traditional songs and dances: Do we know the background of “Solidarity Forever”?
• Traditional ceremonies

The tree trunk enables transmission: institutional structures, laws, and policies.

• Policies
• Legislation
• Affirmative action
• Protocols
• Rules and regulations

The tree’s leaves are the symptoms:

• Discrimination
• Stereotyping
• Gender Gaps
• Gender-based violence
• Harmful cultures
• Honor crimes, e.g., punishing “immoral” behavior of women
• Female genital mutilation
• Gender selection (preference for boys)
• Mortality differentials

It’s essential for unions to understand how an organization functions before drafting policies and budgets. The East Africa Trade Union Confederation recently conducted a needs analysis before developing a gender strategy. From it, they learned that if a union’s constitution does not allow for women in leadership, the first step is to amend the constitution.

Gender dimensions should be looked at in every phase and aspect of program planning.

Affiliate unions spend a lot of time dealing with symptoms. Rather than focusing solely on the numbers of women in top leadership positions, she said, unions should also quantify women’s involvement in the union.

Rosana Sousa de Deus opened by saying the capitalist system depends on exclusions: homophobia, racism, discrimination against women. If women are absent from the collective bargaining process, their interests are not represented because men often value economic objectives more than social objectives when negotiating union contracts.

Her union, CUT, takes a special interest in training women around issues of equality, communication, patriarchy and capitalism. Through the training process, women learn that their presence is important. They learn they need to intervene in leadership spaces like men.

In 1993, CUT approved a 30 percent quota for women in leadership. Some women believed quota positions are inferior, as Sally mentioned. Her union tried to help everyone understand that taking on leadership roles has been historically difficult for women, because of lack of child care, lack of sharing responsibilities in the home and lack of flexibility in work schedules. Now, women understand the need for quotas. But it took 10 years for women to take advantage of the quotas.

In 2008, the union made quotas part of its statutes and affiliate unions were required to adhere to them. By 2015, women must comprise 50 percent of union leadership. Unions are also required to provide child care during union activities; offer flexible meeting times and mainstream gender issues into all secretariats.

Kate Doherty summed up the presentations, pinpointing three themes:

1. Change is hard and long term.
2. Constitutional change is not enough, change also must be political.
3. The root causes of gender inequality include socialization and culture.

It’s not enough to say all we need to do is change the numbers of women in leadership positions, Doherty said. We need to change the way we do things to allow women to participate.  Three different environments, with mixed experiences.

Pin It on Pinterest


the News from The Solidarity Center