Together But Not Equal: Major Gender Disparity in Unions

by Kaitlin Cole

Although women’s involvement in labor unions has increased significantly since the seventies, a new paper finds that men still hold most of the top union leadership positions in both the U.S. and the U.K. The study, which included interviews with 130 women, was carried out by Professor Geraldine Healy and Professor Gill Kirton of the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University in London.  

In nine of the U.S.’s major labor unions, women only account for 24% of leadership roles, even though overall female membership in unions is much higher.  Across the pond, the first female General Secretary of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, was only just elected this year.

One thing that seems to be keeping women from rising to leadership positions is the persistent idea that female leaders are bitchy and isolating, while men with similar leadership qualities are seen as driven and assertive (remember when Nicki Minaj so perfectly summed it up?). Additionally, there’s the face-palm-inducing question of whether female bosses make men uncomfortable. Excuse me for a moment–I’ve gotta play a tiny violin in sympathy for guys who just can’t handle a big scary woman in command!

An aversion to female authority isn’t limited to men, though, as Professor Kirton explains: “When a woman shows that she is prepared to be ruthless or dictatorial or when she has an aggressive personal style, this can meet the severe disapproval of other women.”  Instead of being intimidated by a lady head honcho, female union members tend to expect more support and encouragement from a woman leader.  And if they don’t receive those things, it’s more upsetting than if a male leader had done the same.

The study also found that “in many cases American and British women union leaders did express a strong sense of accountability, not just to members generally, but specifically to other union women – they want to lift other women as they climbed.” Taking into account that unions themselves are democratic, an overly aggressive leadership style seems out of place, no matter whether it comes from a man or a woman.

The fight for workers’ rights is an important one, and gender equality within it can only strengthen its case–especially considering many of the labor rights issues are in accord with women’s rights issues, like equal wages and benefits.

You can download the full paper here.


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