UNISON women are breaking the bias and working for equality

Vice chairs of the union’s national women’s committee, Tania Earnshaw and Deborah Yapicioz reflect on the issues worth highlighting this International Women’s Day

vice chairs of the women's committee Deborah Yapicioz and Tania Earnshaw

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, today, is #BreakTheBias.

It asks people to ‘Imagine a gender equal work. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

‘A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality’.

Nearly four out of every five members of UNISON are women, making the union one of, if not the, largest women’s organisation in Europe, over a million women members strong.

As vice-chairs of UNISON’s national women’s committee, Deborah Yapicioz and Tania Earnshaw know that this means UNISON’s voice is vital in affecting change for women, not just on 8 March, but all year round.

They sat down during UNISON’s recent national women’s conference to talk about some of the issues that women face, whether as a result of long-term gender discrimination like equal pay or world events like COVID-19.

The conference came at the end of Christina McAnea’s first year as general secretary of UNISON. Speaking of that 12 months, Deborah says: “I think it’s been hugely, hugely important. It was a major breakthrough and a moment where we felt like we’d ‘broken the glass ceiling’ in UNISON. And she hasn’t had the easiest of years.

For Tania: “The thing with any type of organising, especially trade unionism, is that ‘like attracts like’. It’s taken almost 30 years to get a woman as general secretary of UNISON, but now other women see her in that job or they see us two chairing conferences and, because we’re not totally messing it up I think, they say, ‘well maybe I could do it’”.

She goes on to highlight the misconception that when people think of trade unionists in the UK, they think of the “miner’s strikes and old blokes shouting from podiums.” The reality is, that the average trade unionist in the UK is a woman over the age of 40.

“And a massive amount of those women members are part-time and have caring responsibilities and I think we’re starting to realise that organising part-time women is very different to what you would call ‘traditional, male-centric organising’.

“They need to go home, be able pick up the kids, be able to look after older relatives, and that means that can’t stay until 10 o’clock on a Friday to have a trade union meeting in the pub.”

She notes that one problem is that the proportions don’t look the same in the membership as they do in terms of activists. In UNISON, 80% of the members are women, only around 50% of branch secretaries and chairs are women.

“I think having Christina there really embodies that reality of women in the workplace and it is helping to change the narrative,” continues Tania. “With such a large proportion of women in the union we have to make sure that their views are reflected in the decisions that we make.”

Raising women’s voices

Some of those key decisions will be made at national delegate conference in the summer, where motions concerning flexible working, childcare, low pay, women in the union, pregnant workers, misogyny as a hate crime and women’s mental health will be heard, bringing women’s voices to life. The deadline for people to put their name forward to attend is 24 March.

Women’s conference fielded, and passed, motions on a wide range of issues. One of them was the motion entitled Never forget to lift as you rise, which particularly resonates with Deborah.

She says: “Women need to keep encouraging other women to get involved, otherwise there will be nobody to follow us, then what’s the point? There were definitely women who encouraged me to get involved before I was as active as I am now.

“Then, as women get involved more, you have to get them engaging, participating and voting on things. I never thought I’d speak at conference, never mind actually being the chair, so it was a bit surreal on the first morning.

“You look at things like the pathways into UNISON course; you go and you listen to how women joined the union and hear their stories. Then you try to encourage women to come to the regional women’s committee or be the women’s officer in their branch. It’s so important to hear from other women who have done it.

“Just look at Angela Rayner – a low paid domiciliary care worker, single mother and she was in UNISON, now look where she is. And don’t forget Elizabeth Cameron and all the others who have now gone into political life.

Several motions at women’s conference highlighted the effect which the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women, whether it was the fact that they are more likely to suffer from long COVID or the pandemic causing other issues to take a back seat.

“It feels like, with COVID, the Tory government and coming out of Europe, that we’re going backwards at speed,” says Tania. “So many important employment rights come from the European directives. Before the pandemic, this government was trying to weasel its way out of them, but fortunately, for the time being they seem to have been diverted”.

Deborah adds: “That’s the unfortunate thing, something like COVID takes its place in the narrative and things get pushed to the side-lines. Take sexual harassment. You would imagine, with everyone working from home, that sexual harassment wouldn’t take place, because you feel like you would have to be in a room with someone, but it has just changed and gone online and it’s a real problem.

“Our policies and campaigns have to be set up to reflect and target the change in that area. Nobody should be harassed at work, online or in-person, be it a man, woman or anyone.”

Isolation and just saying ‘no’

Tania notes that, as the pandemic has gone on, people have become more and more isolated, particularly in the carers’ workforce. “I think UNISON did really good work in terms of saying ‘if it’s an unsafe workplace, you can refuse to enter’.

“Now, I quite often have these conversations with members where I’ll find myself saying ‘just say no and see what they do.’ First thing they say is, ‘I can do that?’ A lot of the time employers are just depending on workers to comply, so it’s really important to give people the confidence to be able to say ‘no’, and that they’ll be supported by the union.”

Just saying no, as Tania puts it, is a vital way not only individuals but branches are also bringing about change for women. Just last week Glasgow City council branch voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action in a long-running dispute about unequal pay, predominantly affecting women.

“We’re 50 years on from the Dagenham Women now,” she says, “The gender pay gap is still there and now we find out that COVID has actually been widening the gap. Even though we have things like public sector pay reporting, it’s mostly just a tick box exercise and there’s all sorts of ways to massage and manipulate the figures.”

“And soon we’ll be at that date in November – equal pay day they call it – where the average woman stops earning in comparison to the average man,” adds Deborah. Last year the day fell on 18 November. “I mean, that’s just a disgrace isn’t it?”

The bottom line, for Deborah and Tania, is that for all the work that has been done for women’s equality through their working lives so far, both by UNISON and in the wider world, the fight is nowhere near over and it is vital that the next generation of women are fostered through the union and given the opportunities and encouragement to make their voices heard.

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