Global Resources

Gender equality and labour movements: toward a global perspective

Author: D. S. Cobble
Publisher: Solidarity Center
Publication Date: Feb 2012

This report offers a critical review of the English-language research on gender equality and labour movements in order to identify “best practice” case studies of unions engaged in building democratic, just, and humane societies around the world. The report also seeks to specify existing gaps in knowledge, as well as areas where new research would help labour organisations to better meet the needs of workers, their families, and their communities. The report is split into five sections, the first of which acts as an introduction to the topic, and defines the terms and concepts used. Sections two to four then examine gender gaps in trade union membership, leadership, and priorities respectively, before section five looks to the future.


The author finds that while the gender gap in membership may be closing in established unions, in many parts of the world opportunities for collective representation remain rare, or are in serious decline. However, research to date is light on new and emerging unions and labour organisations. Thus, the author highlights examples of the new labour movements being pioneered by women in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, notable for their attention to the community, family, and personal needs, and their campaigning on wider issues such as sexual and political violence, and civil, political, and economic rights for women,


In terms of gender equality in union leadership, the report examines the claim that progress is moving at two different speeds, with some unions highly sympathetic to gender equality projects, and some determined to resist. UNISON is identified as exemplifying the former group, while other unions have taken an approach which focused on how women themselves could change, encouraging them to leave behind traditional female ways, and “learn assertiveness, bluff, and bluster”. This is explained in literature via a number of factors, including: men’s determination to retain power, women’s multiple roles, union traditions regarding choosing leaders, a lack of democracy, and broader social beliefs about women’s leadership. The author also discusses the rigorous debate on the pros and cons of women pursuing organising either within unions, or as separate entities.


The author notes the dearth of studies on gender gaps in union priorities, a problem making a complex question even harder to answer. However, the author does note that unions are increasingly making women’s concerns a priority, and that in response to women’s own shifting articulations of their interests, unions too have expanded their gender equality agendas. The wider shift from “non-discrimination” to “gender mainstreaming” policies is discussed, including the role of some trade unions in pushing the transition along. In fact, the author suggests (with numerous examples) that since the 1970s, unions have become one of the primary global vehicles for advancing gender equality. Overall however, there is evidence of a divide between unions in their responsiveness to prioritising gender equality, with some unions much more engaged and gender-sensitive than others.



Finally, the report takes a look to the future and how gender equality can be advanced by NGOs, member-based organisations (MBOs), grassroots leadership, union mergers, and union renewal. This final section also discusses the need for further research to help map both the local and the global state of trade unions, and women’s participation therein.