Women are increasingly assuming leading roles in trade unions. Next comes changing organisational cultures.
When they think of the notion of a trade-union leader, those who conjure up a middle-aged man standing in overalls with a loudspeaker in front of a largely male crowd may rub their eyes in amazement at today‘s European scene.
In Great Britain, a number of women head the largest unions, including Christina McAnea (Unison) and Sharon Graham (Unite), and until last December the overarching Trade Union Congress was led by Frances O’Grady. In France, Marylise Léon recently became head of the Confédération française démocratique du travail and Sophie Binet is the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail. And in Germany, Yasmin Fahimi has led the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund union federation since 2022, while the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, covering education, is also headed by a woman, Maike Finnern.
So, with so many women, the issue of representation and structural inequality is done and dusted? Far from it: we are just getting started.
As women at the head of trade unions, we have a great opportunity. Not only can we continue to design our own organisations in such a way that more women find their place within them; we can also take on acting as role models for companies, as in my native Germany.
I am not just interested in how many women are represented on the board of directors and the supervisory board (even though this is very close to my heart!). I am interested in the debate on how women at all levels can find their place in the world of work without having to tear themselves apart between family and job or between social expectations and their own demands.
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Companies and whole sectors of the economy complain about the lack of skilled workers. At the same time, they concede that well-qualified women cannot reach their full potential on the labour market. Their talent is far too often lost to companies because their professional development opportunities are limited.
Sexism, discrimination and demoralisation are interpersonal experiences the bulk of women suffer in their professional lives. At the same time, there are systemic deficiencies: low offers of advancement for mothers, the notorious part-time trap and difficult entry after parental leave. A lack of daycare places and other childcare options makes it even more difficult for women to enter and re-enter the labour market. Each of these factors is in itself an obstacle for women but usually several come together.
How can trade unions counteract this? And what special responsibility does a female union leader have? Business circumstances can be improved by members of works councils with a commitment to equality and the establishment of complaints and conciliation offices. It is clear that unionisation of the workforce and a strong works council make it much more likely that these will exist.
So much the better, then, that almost a quarter of the members of works-council committees in the field we organise are female, even exceeding workforce representation. Leadership positions are also constantly improving in this regard.
At the same time, my union, IG Metall, must ensure that the goal its statutes mandate—‘It actively promotes equality between women and men in society, the company and the trade union, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, religion or world view, disability, age or sexual identity’—also lives in its union structures. We achieve this in as much as we are an organisation open to women, at all levels.
We utilise and provide different formats to promote women and bring equality issues to the fore. We achieve the promotion of women in principal and honorary posts through target quotas. For recruitment of trainees as union secretaries, this is 40 per cent women. For IG Metall employees, the quota is 30 per cent—we have already fulfilled this, but continue to work actively to sustain and increase participation.
About one in four IG Metall branches is headed by a woman. This means IG Metall is also showing a female face on the ground.
Via a resolution at the union’s conference this October, a quota should also be introduced for its top leadership. Already, two of the seven executive committee members are female. There are now also plans for a quota rule for the presidency, with at least one of the positions of president and deputy president to be held by a woman.
I often get asked, by men and women, whether quotas do not stigmatise women—as implying one is only in a top post because of the quota. To women in this debate I always have a short sentence which sums it up for me: ‘You have to be better than men anyway—with or without a quota—so you can use it too.’
‘Solidarity in diversity’
At all levels of IG Metall, we have decidedly female structures, which also exercise their own initiative vis-à-vis the highest decision-making body, the union conference. We have educational events and networks, and we promote internal equality and a culture of co-operation through operational agreements.
‘To shape solidarity in diversity’—this Leitmotif has accompanied IG Metall‘s commitment for many years in the companies in our organisational area and for our own more than 2,000 employees nationwide. We know that we can only act successfully for our members and become still stronger if we reflect the diversity in companies and society in our own ranks.That is how I put it in the Diversity Charter and that is how we have to live our organisation, IG Metall.
The increasing presence of women at the head of trade unions will have a positive effect on the organisations themselves but also a ripple effect on the economy and society. So many women come up to me and tell me that they need role models—and they are getting them more and more. ‘Representation matters’: that counts too for women in trade unions.
I look forward to a time when women no longer have to decide whether to devote more attention to children or a career, because they know for sure that one does not exclude the other. I look forward too to a time when women in union leadership no longer have to explain in interviews ‘how one feels as a woman there’ or ‘how one made it to the top as a woman’ but are simply asked about ideas, convictions and plans. And I am looking forward to a time when when if one hears that phrase, ‘union leadership’, one naturally thinks of a woman who stands on the stage at strike events and addresses a crowd with the loudspeaker, seeing equally men and women.
There is still a long way to go. But we have taken the right course—and will go further.