Theme Trade Unions

Written by Rosemary Francis, The University of Melbourne

A critical moment for the trade union movement arrived when Jennie George was elected president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1995 (Heywood, 'George', AWR). For the first time in its one hundred years of history, a woman had assumed leadership of the peak union body of the Australian labour movement. Sharan Burrow, who was to follow Jennie George into the leadership of the ACTU, spoke of the event as 'a day that is hugely symbolic'-because 'if it's possible to shift the male culture of the trade union movement [in this way], then it's possible to shift anything' (quoted in Creed, 103).

A small number of women were active in the labour movement from the time that women began to work in factories in Victoria from the 1870s, for example in the Tailoresses' Union (1882), the Victorian Lady Teachers' Association (1885) and the Victorian Women's Post and Telegraph Association (1900). Women in the other Australian colonies became similarly involved: the Working Women's Trade Union was formed in South Australia in 1890, and in New South Wales, the Female Employees' Union was established in 1891.

Women have struggled, however, to assume traditional leadership roles in the Australian trade union movement. As in every other sphere of Australian public life, few women trade union leaders emerged before the latter part of the 20th century. The trade union movement has been described as 'a men's movement', a means whereby men of the working class could find an accommodation with capitalism (Lake, 136). Most unions were formed as exclusive organisations in an attempt, initially, to protect the working conditions of skilled workers, and then lesser skilled white, male workers, against employer exploitation. Their strategies, according to historian Sean Scalmer, included collective organisation and limiting their labour through means of skill definitions, restricted immigration and barriers to women's participation in paid work. Women were therefore excluded from most apprenticeships except hairdressing and dressmaking until the 1970s. In 1989, nearly 80 per cent of women workers were employed in four industries: community services; wholesale and retail; finance, property and business; and manufacturing. Even into the 21st century, women continue to find employment in a narrow range of occupations.

Blue-collar workers comprised approximately 70 per cent of the union movement until the 1950s, when increasing numbers of white-collar workers became unionised until the percentage of the blue-collar work force fell from 61.1 per cent in 1954 to 49.5 per cent in 1971 (Bowden, 66). The image of the trade union movement was that of a muscular man in a blue singlet, not a culture sympathetic to women workers and not one to which many women were attracted. From the perspective of this male trade unionist, women workers represented a threat to their pay and conditions, for women were traditionally paid at almost half the rate of a male worker. The gender structure of Australian society placed men at the top of the employment hierarchy; they held the skilled occupations, with women relegated to the so-called unskilled work. The establishment of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in 1904 was to have far-reaching effects upon the position of female workers by entrenching the existing labour market divisions based on skill and gender. In 1907, Justice Henry Bournes Higgins ruled in the Harvester Judgement that the family wage was designed for a man to support a wife and three children, while women workers were assumed to have no dependants, so could be paid 54 per cent of the adult male rate. Labour historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that most Labor women, together with those in the wider society, accepted that a woman's place was not in industry but in the home and that paid labour was at best a necessary evil. They did not want women to compete for jobs with their men, and defended the principle of the living wage for the male workers as a means of ensuring that women remained within their proper sphere (Bongiorno, 119).

The arbitration system provided a boost for white-collar unions, particularly in the public sector where government by-laws had previously restricted membership. It also ensured that trade unions were accepted as legitimate players in the industrial relations sector in Australia. Its existence, however, also made the goal of equal pay a difficult one to achieve. In 1912, Higgins' decision in the fruit pickers' case confirmed the lower wages of women in the industries where they mostly worked. Where men and women were employed in the same industry and performed the same work, they were to be paid equally. This was a rare occurrence in a markedly sex-segregated work force.

In the opinion of the Australian community, which included the labour movement, women were temporary workers who were expected to leave the paid work force on marriage to assume full-time domestic duties. The reality was that some women did not marry and did not become dependent upon a breadwinning spouse. But issues that affected women workers were not high on a union's agenda. The secretary of the Federated Clothing Trades Union reported in the early years of the 20th century that his union representatives 'deliberately refrained from using their best endeavours to improve the lot of women' (Bowden, 60).

From 1902, this attitude required modification in light of the federal enfranchisement of women. Labor Party leaders now understood the need to organise the women's vote by establishing formal bodies such as Victoria's Women's Organising Committee (WOC). The WOC was to have a limited role, however, its activities strictly monitored under the authority of the central executive of the Political Labour Council (PLC), which in 1918 became the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Labor women were permitted to assist with fundraising and organising activities but were excluded from contributing to policy development. The industrial interests of women workers were not a priority while the family ideology remained the prevailing discourse. The concept of leadership in Australian society was associated with masculinity and the trade union movement perpetuated that view. Many women themselves have been reluctant to describe their work as leadership, preferring terms such as activist or facilitator to describe their contribution to the trade union movement. Nevertheless, the reality was that at least 20 per cent of the workforce was female in the early decades of the century, with a large number of those women being family breadwinners (Ryan & Conlon, 84). From their ranks leaders emerged.

Women Taking the Lead

Women who had fought for the franchise were confident of their capacity to redress the exploitative conditions of women workers. The early part of the 20th century witnessed women in the industrial wing of the labour movement challenging the predominant view of the woman worker's second-class status. In Victoria, Ellen Mulcahy, Sara Lewis, Minnie Felstead and May Francis (later Brodney) (Frances, ADB) sought to organise women industrially and to create their own unions. Felstead believed that the party's first priority was to establish appropriate industrial organisations capable of eliminating the exploitation of women workers before it could hope to attract the votes of working-class women or meet their demands. Emma Miller in Queensland (Jordan; Young, ADB, Heywood, 'Miller', AWR), Jean Beadle (Birman & Wood, ADB; Heywood & Oliver, AWR) and Mary Swanton (who became the first female president of the Tailors and Tailoresses' Union of Western Australia in 1907) in Western Australia (Grahame, ADB; Henningham, 'Swanton', AWR), Annie Creo Stanley (Markey, ADB) and Kate Dwyer (Gallego, ADB; Alafaci, 'Dwyer', AWR) in New South Wales, Mary Lee (Jones, 'Lee', ADB; Heywood & Secomb, AWR) and Augusta Zadow (Jones, 'Zadow', ADB; Heywood, 'Zadow', AWR) in South Australia understood the importance of women participating actively in unions.

Anxieties about women's presence in the paid work force came to a head during the Great Depression of 1929-1933 when the unemployment rate was estimated to be 30 per cent. The building and construction industry, in which men formed the majority of that workforce, was the most affected. Women were employed in areas that did not experience such severe unemployment. Male workers in most Australian states, feeling insecure about their job prospects, asserted that 'women were taking men's jobs'. This was a puzzling accusation given the fact that women and men rarely worked in the same occupation. Nevertheless the perception remained to the extent that, in Victoria, a parliamentary select committee was instructed to inquire into 'the effect of the increasing ratio of femininity in industry on male employment and whether equal pay should not be introduced in many industries'. Muriel Heagney, a member of the Federated Clerks Union and, later, the founder of the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP), responded to the accusation in 1935 with the publication entitled Are Women Taking Men's Jobs? funded by the Victorian branch of the Open Door Council. In it she set out the circumstances in which women were employed and the disadvantage they endured, thus refuting such an irrational claim. She did, however, also argue that equal occupational rates for men and women should apply together with equal opportunity (Heagney; Bremner, ADB; Francis, AWR; Francis, 2012).

The question of equal pay was a contentious one that engaged the attention of women trade unionists over a long period. Women such as Mulcahy, Muriel Heagney, Lucy Woodcock (Mitchell, ADB; Lemon, 'Woodcock', AWR), Jean Arnot (Land, 'Arnot', AWR), Eileen Powell (Heywood, 'Powell', AWR), Edna Ryan (Morrell, AWR), Kath Williams (D'Aprano, ADB; Henningham, 'Williams', ADB), Zelda D'Aprano (Land, 'D'Aprano', AWR), and others were to struggle doggedly during the 20th century to achieve this goal. Trade unions with female members usually gave lip service to making equal pay a priority but saw it principally as a means of ensuring that cheaper female employees would not displace male workers. The Federated Clerks' Union adopted this attitude. The Council of Action for Equal Pay emerged out of the Clerks' Union in New South Wales in 1937 and included more than 53 unions and feminist organisations as affiliates.

World War II offered women greater opportunities to move into previously restricted occupations while men were serving overseas in various theatres of war. During this period, equal pay activists in the CAEP, including Heagney as secretary-treasurer, thought that at last they would achieve their goal. But their hopes were dashed yet again. In 1949, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court ruled that women workers' rate of pay was to be 75 per cent of the male basic wage. It was not until 1974 that one minimum wage applying to both men and women was achieved.

Changing Gender Composition of Union Membership

The gender composition of union membership was to change during the second half of the 20th century with the gradual disappearance of many blue-collar jobs and an increase in the number of workers in white-collar occupations. These circumstances were conducive to an increase in female union membership and, by extension, to a growth in women's leadership roles. In the 1970s, part-time largely female jobs in retailing and hospitality increased and jobs for women also grew in the professional and semi-professional occupations of nursing and teaching as well as in the clerical and administrative workforce, both in the private and in the public sectors. By 1981, white-collar workers were almost 40 per cent of all unionists though they comprised only 28 per cent of the work force. The union movement had become increasingly feminised, with 36.5 per cent of breadwinners women (Bowden, 67). These changes were occurring during a period of overall decline in union membership. At the same time, the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s alerted many women to the societal structures that represented 'male advantage' as normal, and women in trade unions understood that the important issues in their lives were not on their unions' agendas.

From the 1970s onwards, the changing nature of the unionised work force became increasingly apparent, with women assuming leadership positions in teacher unions in New South Wales and Victoria. Jennie George and Sharan Burrow in the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF) both went on to become presidents of the ACTU, and Claire Kelly, Mary Bluett and Susan Hopgood became key figures in the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA). In 1975, Pat Giles was the first woman to be employed with the Hospital Employees Union of Western Australia to organise so-called unskilled nursing home and private hospital workers (Heywood, 'Giles', AWR). She was frequently the only woman on committees, including the executive of the Trades and Labour Council of Western Australia. Focusing upon issues for women workers such as equal pay, maternity leave and part-time work, she pressed for a union movement sensitive to working women's needs and was a speaker at the ACTU Conference in 1977. In 1987, Anna Booth was elected secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFU) and in 1991 became a vice-president of the ACTU (Alafaci, 'Booth', AWR), while, in 1990, Helen Creed in Western Australia was elected secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union (LHMWU). In 1995, Wendy Caird assumed the same position in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

Nature of Women's Leadership

Until relatively recently, the term 'leadership' rarely applied to women. In the trade union movement, women who gained prominence may have been described as activists rather than as leaders. Leadership was defined as individual, heroic behavior executed by men. Its origins lay in the military idea of leadership, when men led other men into battle. A leader had certain personal attributes that persuaded others to follow him. In most cultures, including Australia, leadership has been defined as something that men do. Performance of leadership and masculinity are intertwined. Historically, notions of leadership have derived from studies of all-male hierarchical environments in societies. These include monastic communities and the military. Much of common wisdom about leadership derives directly from the military (Sinclair, 19). Women scholars and practitioners have been at the leading edge of critical thinking on leadership.

With leadership coded as male, many women today remain uncomfortable about applying the term to themselves. They are reluctant to be labeled leaders because it connotes for them the out-front, tough and stoic male hero. In her work on educational leadership, Jill Blackmore notes that leadership is both 'the problem' and the 'solution'. We cannot ignore the idea of leadership because it is the way of power and legitimacy. At the same time, it is no solution for women to just accept leadership as an unproblematic good and try to measure up to it (Blackmore, quoted in Sinclair, 17).

Debra Shorter has expressed the view that 'women are all too often reluctant leaders. Those in senior positions are particularly sensitive to their position and have no wish to alienate men'. They do not often refer to power. Shorter remarked: 'Women don't want to take over the world, but want a true, equal and happy partnership with men' (Shorter, 132). Pat Giles described herself as a facilitator rather than leader. 'Leadership has been far from my mind, and even now seems alien, a masculine construct which bears little resemblance to what I have been doing for the last twenty-five years' (Giles, 32-44). Donella Caspersz regarded herself as an 'activist' rather than a 'leader'; for her, leadership has meant trying to change things for the better (Caspersz, 153).

An understanding of leadership as a set of practices, as distributed across a group and collectively achieved, is a relatively recent view. Amanda Sinclair has argued that, in Australia, even highly visible and effective women in public life have often not had the term 'leader' bestowed upon them. Sinclair contends that definitions and discourses of leadership have been remarkably impervious to the efforts and accomplishments of women. A great deal of women's leadership simply has not registered in the canons of leadership knowledge. The good news is that discourses are always open to challenge and contestation. She explains that the discourse of leadership is a powerful and privileged one as people take notice of what you are saying (Sinclair, 15-34).

It is clear that, for most of the 20th century, the trade union movement has been impervious to the efforts and accomplishments of women. Women were marginalised and excluded from the positions of power. Before female unionists could demand a voice in the decision-making structures of their unions and the peak body, the ACTU, it was crucial for them to understand the ways that the power structures reinforced the positions of men in the union movement. They also had to understand the need for collective action in order to challenge those in power and accomplish change.

Nowadays, most theorists recognise that leadership is not a position or a person but a process of influence. One definition of leadership cited by Sinclair is: 'a social influence process through which emergent coordination (i.e. evolving social order) and change (i.e. new values, attitudes, approaches, behaviours, ideologies etc.) are constructed and produced' (Uhl Bien, 668). Leadership can therefore be exercised by individuals located in the middle or at the bottom of organisations, by people without formal authority, as much as by chief executive officers or prime ministers. In contrast to understandings of management (which focus on the ongoing controlling of resources and tasks), leadership is generally thought to include an interest in change: on challenging the status quo. For Eva Cox, 'the essence of leadership is making up your own mind and then being able to take other people with you' (Sinclair, 16). Education academic Jill Blackmore explains that leadership 'became a means to address inequality'. It was about 'gendered power relations that impact on social justice' (Blackmore, 187). For her, a feminist perspective perceives leadership as a means of achieving social justice for marginalised groups. Focusing on social justice involves dealing with issues of power, responsibility and ethics.

Women who describe themselves as feminists in the trade union movement are there to represent the concerns of women members when their priorities differ from those of their male colleagues. Although some matters such as child care and sexual harassment have typically been dismissed as 'women's issues', they are union issues that need to be resolved. It has been the role of female trade union leaders to ensure that these issues remain on the union's agenda and are treated seriously.

Do Women Lead Differently from Men?

The notion that women as a group exhibit different but equally valuable 'feminine' styles of leadership continues to be controversial (Sinclair, 22). Research has found that where women are employed in organisations where the senior management is male, they will conform to the male models of leadership. In contrast, the small amount of research into women's organisations suggests that where women are freer to create their own organisational and leadership culture, they will often do it differently (Ferree & Martin, quoted in Sinclair, 23). In these cases, women's leadership will generally be less hierarchical, power will be more devolved and structures more participatory, and there will be greater interest shown by these organisations in the whole person.

Research in the British context has found that, in terms of leadership style, women are more collaborative and participative with consciously gendered objectives that focus on women's issues and aim to bring more women into leadership. Leadership styles are conceptualised as social constructions rather than as characteristics, traits or properties of individual women and men (Kirton & Healy, 6).

Further research has confirmed that women are not psychologically or physically handicapped for leadership, but rather face a barrage of gendered assumptions about their fitness that are then translated into discriminatory norms and organisational practices in areas such as recruitment and promotion. Any discussion about women and leadership needs to include a more searching critique of power and leadership, including mechanisms by which élites perpetuate centralisation of power-often in gendered forms (Sinclair, 24).

For women, leadership has often been provided from a position of being 'outsiders', as they were denied access to networks of privilege and power. This outsider status frequently requires and bestows a discernable courage, a familiarity with 'not belonging' and a willingness to be non-conforming. Women leaders often have less to lose in 'going it alone' (Sinclair, 25).

In an acknowledgement of the fact that perhaps women do bring other characteristics to their leadership roles, Helen Creed pointed to the words of English feminist Elizabeth Wilson who wrote in 1977 that: 'one of the positive aspects of women's involvement in union struggles is that they … raise issues of the social conditions of work, instead of sticking to generalized economic issues, so that far from being negative, involvement in personal problems may represent a higher level of political consciousness' (Creed, 102).

Barriers to Women Assuming Leadership Positions in Trade Unions

Women continue to be underrepresented among trade union leaders. Five main barriers to leadership have been identified. (Girton & Healy) First, the debate continues about the larger share that women shoulder of family and domestic responsibilities and how that impacts on their paid employment and public life. This is often referred to as women's 'double burden' and explains the time poverty they experience. Trade union participation adds another burden. Nevertheless, some women still participate in unions and, rather than seeing such activity as a 'burden', they view it as a 'lifeline' or a route to a satisfying and interesting life. Too much emphasis on family and domestic responsibilities tends to 'privatise' and individualise barriers to women's participation, absolving the unions themselves from any blame.

Second, the sex segregation of women's work means that women often do not develop the skills and competencies in the workplace that they might use confidently in trade union leadership roles. It is argued that men dominate the local union hierarchies precisely because they dominate the hierarchy of labour. Women often work in socially isolated and closely supervised jobs, which can make the development of a collectivist identity and solidarity difficult or even impossible.

Third, trade unions are described as 'greedy' organisations, consuming large amounts of time and energy at huge personal cost to both men and women. Fourth, there is the matter of trade union leadership styles and the extent to which they are gendered. While men are considered to be transactional leaders, using material rewards to direct followers, women's leadership in the trade union movement has been described as transformational, because women who reach leadership positions tend to work to change the culture of their particular union to enable other women to succeed. They have engaged in broadening union agendas to include the issues that specifically affect female members: for example, equal pay, permanent part-time work, child care, superannuation and sexual harassment. Such women have also worked to democratise their unions by making them more representative of their members.

Fifth, the trade union movement has been criticised for failing to campaign sufficiently vigorously on 'women's issues', even though common experiences among women make it possible to identify a range of work interests specific to women. On the other hand, women themselves may have a narrow view of what unions do. To counter this, another argument suggests that women should shift their focus from their individual experiences in organisations and as managers to the structures in which they are located.

Women were for a long time 'outsiders' in their unions as the male 'breadwinning' leaders considered their needs were to be marginal. They did, however, manage to gain leadership roles in unions with large numbers of female members, such as nurses, teachers, public servants, clerks and flight attendants.

Conditions/Contexts under which Women Have Assumed Leadership

The broader definition of leadership, which sees union leadership as multi-layered with leadership positions existing at a variety of levels is perhaps more acceptable to women who hold such positions. This definition accepts that power is diffused throughout the organisation and is not concentrated at the top. It is thus exercised not only by the most senior, regional or paid officers, but also by the local, workplace, women's and equality representatives. This understanding of leadership is also indicative of a democratic, collective organisation, which a union professes to be.

In the early years of the 20th century, women assumed leadership in the formation of their own unions but made little headway in gaining senior leadership roles in unions with both male and female members. The Federated Clerks' Union had members of both sexes but senior leadership roles evaded them. Although Heagney was a member of the Clerks' Union from 1915 and remained a member until 1950, when she ceased employment, she had never held a senior leadership role. She had been a delegate to union conferences but no more. She was, however, secretary/treasurer of the CAEP (an unpaid position) from 1937 until 1948 and has been acknowledged as a female labour leader. Della Elliott, who was elected to the Federated Clerks Union's Central Council in 1940, became the first woman in the union's history to hold high office. She was elected an organiser in 1942, and became assistant secretary in 1943, a position she held until 1948. She also served on the NSW Labor Council (SMH, 4 November 2011). Zelda D'Aprano held the position of shop steward for the Health Employees' Union in Victoria during the 1950s.

As women's membership of unions approached a critical mass, more women sought to participate actively in their union. Teachers' unions elected women as leaders from the 1980s: for example, Jennie George in NSW and Mary Bluett in Victoria in 1994. George was elected to the ACTU Executive in 1983 and, from that period, the peak body started to undergo a substantial transformation. The aim was to see women make up 50 per cent of the ACTU Executive by the turn of the century. Jennie George discussed those changes at the ACTU in a paper she presented to the 'Women, Power and the 21st Century' conference in December 1993. She identified the four major steps necessary to change the predominantly male institution and movement. First, the cause and case of women needed to be part of the overall objectives and vision of the organisation. Second, change had to be led and supported by respected senior people. Third, a strategy had to be formulated to achieve those goals, and, fourth, there had to be credibility. George argued that this strategy had worked because the women on the ACTU Executive had demonstrated their competence, ability and merit (Creed, 103-04).

The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s provided female unionists with the framework to challenge the masculine hegemony of their unions. Once they realised that men were not prepared to fight their battles for them, they understood the need to seize the initiative to accomplish change in the areas of permanent part-time work, child care, family leave, superannuation, sexual harassment etc. Their collectivist approach meant that the issues that concerned women unionists could no longer be ignored. Feminists clearly articulated the second-class status of women in Australian society and made their presence felt in their white-collar unions. They nevertheless encountered strong resistance from the male leadership accustomed to the exercise of power. Jennie George's endorsement as president-elect at the 1995 ACTU Congress was therefore a remarkable event. According to Ross Martin, 'the delegates stood and applauded' as the hall was filled with balloons in the feminist colours of purple, green and white (quoted in Creed, 103).

Capacity/Willingness to Deal with Work/Life Balance Issues

Women who have assumed leadership roles in trade unions have demonstrated their commitment to devote the time and energy required to take on such roles. Their numbers have not been large. They have understood, too, that, in pursuing such positions, they were challenging the gendered structure of society where power resided with men and women were limited in their capacity to reach senior positions in the paid work force. It had long been assumed that child-bearing would see women leave the paid workforce for a period to take the major responsibility for the care of their children. However, women unionists with children, such as Mary Bluett and Susan Hopgood, negotiated their parental responsibilities with their respective partners, never believing that their family responsibilities should limit their potential for leadership. Their commitment to achieving change and their energy enabled them to sustain their involvement over a long period. Nevertheless, research completed in the 1980s in Australia demonstrated that it was usually women without children or women who had reared their children who were most active in trade unions. Three decades later, the work/life balance issues continue to impact upon the numbers of women trade unionists prepared to assume leadership positions.

Importance of Role Models or Members

While it has been noted that a lack of women in elected roles has been a key barrier to women's involvement in unions, it is important to appreciate those role models or mentors from the past that we can discover in exploring the history of women's leadership in the labour movement. It is useful to know that women have held positions of power since the early decades of the 20th century, even if the numbers were not great. Helen Creed recalled that when she was elected to the position of secretary of the Australian, Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union, she believed it was a first, unaware of the existence of Florence Anderson who was elected to the position in the early 1930s and retained it until her retirement in 1946. Anderson was a successful advocate on behalf of women cleaners (Creed, 108). Another example is May Holman, who became secretary of the Timber Workers' Union after her father was elected to the state parliament. Holman won endorsement for her father's seat after his death in 1925 (Brown, ADB; Lemon, 'Holman', AWR).

Female or Feminist Support Groups

Women's mere presence in leadership does not necessarily change the nature of the democratic processes or the outcomes. Women's separate organising is the most likely means of achieving the kind of democratic transformation that will lead to the inclusion of women as an oppressed group. Trade union women with an awareness of the injustices suffered by their sex have historically been more likely to take on leadership roles to ensure that their unions represented their interests.

Women have had some success in changing the culture and democratising their unions through a women's caucus or subcommittee. It has been important for women to support each other and to take the initiative on issues of particular relevance to female members. In Barbara Pocock's view, organisation among women has proved essential to give effective voice and reform for their sex in Australian unions (Pocock, 1998, 327). In meeting separately, women have developed the confidence to name their problems and experience, to mobilise around their concerns, to change structures that are often complex and tightly controlled, and to support each other in winning progress. In many instances, the male leadership of trade unions has considered issues on which women focused as irrelevant. Women unionists, however, require the support of male members if they are to attain leadership positions and therefore need to be able to convince them of the centrality of their concerns. Kirton and Healy have argued in the British context that women-only caucuses and women-only trade union education are means to this end as 'sites in which both trade union and gender identities are formed and strengthened' (Kirton & Healy, 6).

Current Situation

In 2013, the ACTU is led by another woman, Gerardine (Ged) Kearney, elected in 2010. Former president Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Federation. There is evidence that the trade union movement is gradually improving the percentage of women in leadership positions within unions. Yet there is still a clear pattern of gendered hierarchical and occupational segmentation in unions (ACTU Women's Committee, 5) Where unions' industry coverage could generally be considered female, such as in teaching, accommodation and food services, administrative and support services and the finance and insurance services, there were 48 per cent or more women on the national executive. Women are still generally not represented proportionately in senior elected positions and overrepresented in the ranks of administrative, support and 'specialist' positions. These positions are often removed from the centre of power, while men are more likely to occupy positions of influence.

Old problems remain as barriers to women's involvement and, by extension, to their leadership in unions: a lack of role models, the persistence of stereotyped perceptions of the role of women in unions, together with a lack of support for women delegates who wish to move into more senior positions, and a lack of flexible work options to assist women to balance work and family.

According to research findings contained in a recent survey of the position of women in Australian unions, about one third of unions have developed and implemented policies to support and encourage women employees to engage in training to equip them for leadership roles (ACTU Women's Committee). Without women members participating in union decision-making processes and structures, the capacity of the movement to reflect their views and attend to their issues is limited, and this reduces its ability to recruit and organise in a modern workforce. Many of these so-called 'women's issues' are relevant to male members. Unions must reflect modern family structures and issues such as balancing work and family in order to maintain their relevance to members and potential members, male and female.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Women's Committee, Women in Australian Unions 2011, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Bongiorno, Frank, The People's Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875 - 1914, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1996. Details
  • Ferree, Myra Marx and Martin, Patricia Yancey, Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Woman's Movement, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, United States of America, 1995. Details
  • Heagney, Muriel, Are Women Taking Men's Jobs?: A Survey of Women's Work in Victoria with Special Regard to Equal Status, Equal Pay and Equality of Opportunity, Hilton & Veitch, Melbourne, Victoria, 1935. Details
  • Pocock, Barbara, Strife! Sex and Politics in Labour Unions, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1997. Details
  • Ryan, Edna and Conlan, Anne, Gentle Invaders: Australian Women at Work 1788 - 1974, 2nd edn, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1989. Details
  • Scalmer, Sean, The Little History of Australian Unionism, Vulgar Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2006. Details

Book Sections

  • Caspersz, Donella, 'Juggling Activism and Leadership', in Eveline, Joan and Hayden, Lorraine (eds), Carrying the Banner: Women, Leadership and Activism in Australia, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 1999, pp. 153 - 159. Details
  • Creed, Helen, 'Keeping the Flame Burning', in Eveline, Joan and Hayden, Lorraine (eds), Carrying the Banner: Women, Leadership and Activism in Australia, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 1999, pp. 101 - 110. Details
  • Francis, Rosemary, 'Muriel Heagney (1885-1974): Pioneering Labour Woman Leader', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 205-217. Details
  • Giles, Patricia, 'One Generation after Another', in Eveline, Joan and Hayden, Lorraine (eds), Carrying the Banner: Women, Leadership and Activism in Australia, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 1999, pp. 32 - 44. Details
  • Jordan, Deborah, 'Leading the Call for "One Vote and No More": Emma Miller (1839 - 1917)', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 50-60. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, 'A Question of Time', in McKnight, David (ed.), Moving Left, Pluto Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details
  • Pocock, Barbara, 'Trade Unionism', in Caine, Barbara (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Shorter, Debra, 'Reinventing Leadership', in Eveline, Joan and Hayden, Lorraine (eds), Carrying the Banner: Women, Leadership and Activism in Australia, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 1999, pp. 127 - 134. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, 'Not just 'adding women in': Women Re-making Leadership', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 15-34. Details

Journal Articles

  • Blackmore, Jill, 'Social Justice and the Study and Practice of Leadership in Education: A Feminist History', Journal of Educational Administration and History [Special Issue: Administration and Leadership in Education: A Case For History?], vol. 38, no. 2, 2006, pp. 185 - 200. Details
  • Bowden, Bradley, 'The Rise and Decline of Australian Unionism: A History of Industrial Labour from the 1820's to 2010', Labour History, vol. 100, 2011, pp. 51-82. Details
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Online Resources