Increasing women’s participation – Davena Rankin’s speech to TUC Women’s Conference

Davena Rankin
Davena Rankin

As the Chair of the STUC Women’s committee, UNISON’s Davena Rankin was invited to make the sororal address to the 2016 TUC women’s Conference. This is the text of her speech.

Good afternoon sisters, I bring with me sororal greetings and warmest wishes from the STUC women’s committee.

I have the honour and privilege of being the Chair of the STUC women’s committee this year. I am the first Black chair of the committee and with the support of the committee we have decided that the strap line of our conference in October will be Women: many roles, many barriers. Recognising that women self define in so many different ways that the discrimination we face while underpinned by systemic gender bias will also include additional and personal barriers.

Part of our work this year will be to increase the level of joint work with the other STUC equalities committees and at our fringe meeting at the STUC annual congress we will be asking the other equalities committees to highlight what they are going to do to tackle gender discrimination in their work plan.

So to that end I want to use my address today to highlight some of the priorities of the committee.

Older Women in the Workplace:

My heart sank when I saw George Osbourne in the newspaper last week.

To be fair my heart always sinks when I see George Osbourne but this time there was a particular reason for the feeling of dread that spread over me and that was the speculation on his plans in regards to pensions. His plans, according to the paper, is to raise the retirement age for those under 55 to 75. A significant increase for those of us who are seeing our retirement fast disappearing over the horizon, always moving and always just out of reach.

His constant shifting of the retirement age is based on a presumption that we will continue to live for longer and longer. It ignores the fact that the average life span varies across the UK because not everyone has the luxury of growing up in the leafy suburbs of Notting hill.

It also ignores the fact that Osbourne’s savage ideological attacks on our public services and welfare state has seen growing inequality in Britain.

It has led to a growing level of in work poverty …

…where food banks are spreading throughout the UK,

…where families make the difficult choice of feeding their children or heating their homes,

…where zero hour contracts, underemployment and low wages see workers being forced to work longer hours just to make ends meet.

All adding to increasing inequality in health outcomes and raises serious questions about the quality of life in retirement – assuming you live long enough to be able to retire.

A major area of our work plan has been older women in the workplace – in Scotland the number of older women in employment has been steadily increasing over the years. For some, it is a positive choice for others, George Osbourne has meant they have been forced to remain in the workplace.

An issue we have become aware of is that increasingly employers are using capability policies to manage women over the age of 50 out of the door seeking to replace them with younger and cheaper workers. As well as looking to ensure workplace policies support women at all ages and stages of their life.

We have been working with STUC youth committee to highlight and tackle the exploitation of younger workers because of this practice.

Women in the Trade Union Movement

Another piece of work that the committee has overseen in the last year was a piece of research funded by the Scottish Government and carried out by a researcher called Aleksandra Webb. Her research looked at women in the workplace and the role of women in the trade union movement. As a self confessed geek I loved the wealth of data Aleksandra collected – the first time we had seen such a depth of analysis specifically carried out within the Scottish Trade union movement.

Some lessons learned included the need to improve our collection and monitoring systems to make access this type of data easier in future and the need to make sure that we support and mentor the next generation of female trade union activists to make sure that they are not forced to re-learn the lessons we have learned the hard way and can instead focus on new battles.

Linked to that is the work we have been carrying out with the Transport Minister Derek Mackay MSP. I must say that I now know more about tendering within the train and bus industries in Scotland than I perhaps thought would be possible and if you had said I would be chairing the joint meetings with the minister I would have laughed but that’s where we are at.

We are pushing the Scottish government to increase the number of women train drivers, we are pushing for them to tackle safety for women passengers and workers on the railway and at sea. To be fair, we are pushing at an open door and the Minister has fully engaged in the meetings and you can see that he has been trying to improve the situation.

The minister made an interesting observation at our last meeting. We had been pushing to ensure that any promotional material used for the new roles in Scotrail used female images as well as male images. He agreed that this was important and has ensured that was the case. He then raised the fact that he had recently met with another delegation from the STUC and he found it interesting to note that it had been an all male delegation.

He made no further comment but how can we expect employers and governments to tackle the under representation of women in board rooms and management posts if we can’t get trade unions to tackle the issue within our own movement?

Within the TUC women’s committee report the number of women attending and speaking at the TUC annual congress was highlighted and I noticed that in 2015, 38.4% of speakers were women. While there had been a slight increase over the previous year there were worrying trends hidden behind this statistic.

There was only 1 woman speaking in the economy and productivity debate and we were completely absent from the debates on public sector pay and transport. Instead Women dominated the debates on casualisation, the arts and culture, the gender pension gap and health. While all the debates are important we must ensure that women’s voices are heard in each and every debate.

Women in Public and Political Life

A third area of work is increasing women’s participation in public and political life. When the Scottish Parliament was re-established in 1999, there were 48 women elected as MSPs meaning that there were more female parliamentarians elected than the total number of female MPs that had been elected in every previous Westminster elections combined which could explain why one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the parliament was on breastfeeding and enshrined in law a woman’s right to breast feed in public. Another early bill was the “Protection from Abuse act” legislation focused on tackling domestic violence and one that UNISON’s policy officers in Scotland had supported in drafting. Such is the openness of the Scottish Parliament and the opportunities it offers to the trade union movement to influence and shape the future of our country.

Abortion Rights

This week we celebrated international women’s day and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. We all know that one way to tackle gender discrimination is to allow women to have full control over what happens to their body and I was pleased to see that there were motions on abortion rights and the 8th amendment on the agenda this week.

The STUC women’s committee and our conferences have been at the forefront of campaigning for women’s reproductive health rights and this year I marked international women’s day by speaking at a demo at the Scottish Parliament. The demo and rally was organised by Abortion Rights.

At the end of the day, we all know that as trade union women, that access to safe and easily accessible services is a class issue.

It has been and always will be easier for the well off to access birth control and when necessary abortion services.

The trade union movement has a strong tradition of defending a women’s right to choose but we can’t just rest on our track record – there is still much work to be done.

While there are women who live in countries where abortion is illegal with no exceptions – there is still work to be done.

While there are women who live in countries that restrict access to abortions to the extent that it is all but impossible to access them – there is still work to be done.

While there are women who live in countries where abortion is legal but under constant attack from those who seek to dictate what a women does with her body – there is still work to be done.

But we need more women to join us in that struggle. Abortion rights have a stall here and there are forms you can pick up if you are not already a member – ask your branch to affiliate as well.

I have highlighted only a small fraction of our workload and more details can be found on the STUC women’s committee Facebook page and the STUC website which includes a Health and Safety toolkit we developed that focuses on women in the workplace.

So in conclusion, a wise woman once said that a strong woman is a woman determined to do something others are determined not be done. It is a saying I believe truly reflects the STUC women’s committee as we are determined to make real change for women wherever they may live.

Thank you for listening this afternoon.