As part of our ongoing feature, Women leading the way, we spoke to Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), to discuss what can be done to encourage more women to seek leadership positions.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved in trade union and campaigning?
Well, you can tell from my surname I’ve got Irish roots. There’ve been lots of trade unionists and activist members in my family. My mum worked in the NHS, my dad on the assembly line at British Leyland and he was a union rep. I always had to work when I was at school, so I did lots of jobs then and became involved in the union.
I went to university, then had a lot of rubbish jobs as well; it took me a while to find my feet, but what I did do was become active in my union which then was called the Transport and General Workers’ Union which is now part of Unite and I just loved it. It was because it was being with people who shared the same values about equality and respect and dignity at work and justice for working people but also that you could do something practical, you could make a difference by joining together, you could improve pay and conditions, you could get advice and you could stand up against unfair treatment.
So I ended up getting a job with the Transport and General Workers’ Union, campaigning on social justice issues like the campaign for minimum wage and that took off really, I guess. And then I went to the TUC as a campaigns officer and here I am! Who’d have believed it?!
When you ran and launched the organising academy in the late 1990s, you challenged the unionist stereotype of male, pale and stale and now have a 50/50 gender split in membership. Why was that such a priority at the time and what do you think this has achieved?
Well, it’s true our membership is now 50/50, men and women and we’ve had a fantastic generation of organisers who’ve helped deliver that. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do to make our membership grow. But it was really important in our thinking about setting up an organising academy to train up, mainly, but not exclusively, young organisers and make sure they were also diverse in their experience but also in who they were, men and women, black and white, from all sorts of backgrounds because, in the end, we draw our strength from that diversity.
As long as bad employers can divide us up, with little privileges here and a bit of discrimination there, then we’re always going to be weaker. Whereas if we can build a movement that genuinely reflects, and looks like, the workforce that we want to organise, we’ve got a much stronger chance of standing together and winning.
You’re the first female general secretary of the TUC. It was founded in 1868, so it’s taken a long time to happen. What does that mean to you personally and what do you think the meaning of that is for gender equality more broadly?
Well I think I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say there wasn’t a part of me that felt daunted by the fact that I was elected as the first woman general secretary of the TUC. I had this real sense of standing on all these other women’s shoulders who should have had the job before me and had organised and been brilliant negotiators and brilliant leaders but it has taken a very long time to see a woman at the top of the TUC.
But, what I think people sometimes forget, is that there have always been lots of women union leaders and of course presidents drawn from our lay ranks. We’ve had lots of women who’ve worked in shops, the NHS and factory workers who have lead the TUC as president before, but it’s the first time a woman has been in the general secretary post. And it is incredibly exciting because I don’t think we have the luxury of pretending that I don’t still have to fight for gender equality and equality on all fronts.
I don’t think as women we have the luxury of opting out of that fight because there’s still so far to go, but even in small ways it sends an important signal. Symbolism is nothing but it’s everything and I know that it has a big impact on how the movement is seen, how people feel about themselves. I would stress this, I think a lot of men have been really encouraging and positive about this as well as women because I think they know that we draw our real strength from leading by example and practicing in our own movement what we preach for everybody else, so it’s been a positive thing, but it’s quite an honour.
Your work requires a lot of political lobbying, which is an arena which is very underrepresented by women as less than a quarter of MPs are women. Do you encounter any barriers in that environment?
Well I think it’s very interesting that for all the old TV footage that’s pulled out of the bag to portray the trade union movement as pale, male and stale, that in fact, our record now is not good enough, but it’s much much better than the world of business and much much better than the world of Westminster and politics more generally.
I speak to a lot of MPs from all parties, including women MPs who still find it incredibly tough at a very basic level in how they’re treated in parliament or elsewhere. So, for the TUC, obviously we have an important role in providing a political voice for working people, not a party political voice as we’re not affiliated to any party, though clearly we share values with some more than others. Our job is to speak up for working people.
I think in some ways, it’s been quite interesting being the first woman general secretary, because I think there are those in positions of political power who don’t know quite how to handle that, how to respond to it, because styles maybe are different, but I hope it will encourage more women to play that role, because I think sometimes when you talk about lobbying or leadership more generally, those terms are completely mystified.
I see part of my job as de-mystifying what those jobs and roles involve and encouraging not just more women, but more black and ethnic minority people, people from a diverse range of backgrounds, more people from ordinary working backgrounds to get involved. Talent isn’t restricted to one gender, one race or one class, and as a trade union movement, part of our job is to encourage more leaders to come through the ranks from all walks of life.
As a woman in position of real leadership, do you still encounter prejudice as part of this job?
I think that there are still people in the world of politics who think trade unionists bang the table, drink beer and throw their weight around. That’s not my style and I think for many women and actually, many men too, that’s just not the way they want to do business. It’s not the most effective way of representing people and getting your viewpoint across and critically trying to persuade the politicians or civil servants, whoever you’re meeting, to change course.
So, I’m a great believer in being straight and being smart and being well-prepared to get your case across and trying to persuade people why it might be in their best interests to take on the policies that you’re pushing but there’s no secret about what the trade union movement has always stood for. It’s very simple really. We want decent jobs and apprenticeships. We want people to have the chance of a good home they can afford; people want security and fair pay.
There’s no rocket science in this and certainly no secret, but the key issue for us is, that’s not just good for people, it’s what the economy desperately needs too. We have seen this massive growth in inequality and it’s frankly got worse since the recession, not better. And of course, many economists now agree one of the key causes of the crash in the first place was that people were borrowing more than they could afford to repay because they had been experiencing cuts in real pay and were trying to keep up their living standards by taking on mortgages they couldn’t afford.
And that’s one of the reasons we had that debt and housing bubble and what really worries ordinary people is that there’s nothing to suggest that any of the root causes of the crash have been tackled effectively yet. No banking reform, no creation of good jobs, no rebalancing of the economy, the city not reined in, inequality still going through the roof and people experiencing the longest squeeze in their real wages since the 1870s. Something’s got to change so, it’s an important role. For sure I’m the leader, but I’m always really conscious that my strength comes from our collective organisation and the bigger and stronger we are as a movement, the more power we have.
Female student union presidents are quite underrepresented, even though women in the student union movement, more broadly, are actually very well represented. Although we are seeing a change in that trend, do you think it’s really encouraging we’re starting to see more women come into positions of leadership in the student movement?
I think it’s fantastically important we do see more women coming through into positions of leadership in the student movement as in the trade union movement and public life more generally. I think it’s important that we start tackling the real obstacles that women face and there can be really practical issues for women.
Women may have children or all sorts of practical issues that they have to overcome to take up leadership positions. But I think we also need to tackle attitudes and behaviours too because it can feel sometimes in life like you’re joining somebody else’s club or even leading somebody else’s club. The leadership changes but the rules remain the same and some of that has to change too.
I think we have to consciously make sure that organisations are welcoming and encouraging to everybody to take a crack at leadership positions and that does mean sometimes the culture of organisations needs to change too. I know this is going to sound like a terrible generalisation but I do think that sometimes, some people overestimate their abilities and some people, particularly women, underestimate ours. So we need to get a different kind of mind-set.
For me personally, my own experience is that having somebody encourage you, regardless of their gender, but somebody tapping you on the shoulder and saying ‘you can do it’ makes a huge difference and feeling supported in going for it and that you’ll be supported if you get it, these things make a real difference on a personal level. So, I think there’s a lot more that we can do, but it’s fantastic news that we are beginning to see that picture change at long last.
What do you think that the student movement can do to reverse this trend of there being a minority of women in leadership roles?
Well I think there are a lot of practical things. The organising academy in the TUC in some ways provided that kind of training ground where we actively encouraged women to apply. In fact, on the first intake, we had two-thirds women and it was never below 50/50. And that provided a structured way of encouraging men, but especially women, to take on those sorts of leadership roles.
So training can help give you the confidence that you need to go for it. I also think that we do need changes in behaviour sometimes and in rules of engagement. Again, I’m very conscious, not just women but an awful lot of men also find macho behaviours in meetings really off-putting, or the way in which elections are conducted.
For sure, it’s a democratic process, but it doesn’t have to be rough, it doesn’t have to be nasty, it doesn’t have to be personal, because I think that puts off a lot of good talent from all sorts of quarters. So, it is about behaviour and culture and practical changes too that actively encourage the positive route to ensuring that there’s a balance to a generally representative leadership group at the top.
We’ve done a lot of work at the NUS in the last year or so on lad culture. Would you share the view that sort of culture, not just in the student movement, but in wider society, holds women back from leadership positions?
I think it’s really important that NUS is challenging the lad culture. There are really big issues, not just in the student or trade union movement, but for society as a whole about how women are depicted, about big debates about porn and whether that’s degrading to women. I think it’s pretty degrading to the women who work in the industry as well as women who are on the receiving end of the impact.
There are big issues about power in society and I’m a great believer in the importance of dignity and respect and I think if those are our values to start with, then it gives us a basis to look critically at some of those trends in society and how they can damage not just women, but men too. I think we need an honest discussion about that. There are some very powerful business interests behind some of the images that we all have to confront every day of our lives and I think we should be asking hard questions about in whose interest that serves and what kind of society we want to live in.
In terms of the feminist movement and moving toward gender equality, what role do you think men have to play in that?
I think men and women have got a really important role to play in building more equality in society more generally but men can be feminists too. There are male feminists. David Cameron was a bit coy about identifying himself as one. I’m proud to say I am. But, I think it’s really important for men who do agree that women should have equal rights with men, which is all it’s about really, that first of all, they vocalise that, I think that’s important.
I think being prepared to challenge behaviour that is sexist is really important. Being prepared to take a fresh look at the way we organise ourselves, our rules, the way we conduct our business, what it is that we’re striving for and what really matters. Often in the trade union movement, we talk, quite rightly, about pay and conditions in work.
But for many women, including some students, if you haven’t got access to affordable childcare that meets your needs, real wraparound care, it’s really hard to even think about getting a job in the first place. For me, childcare is just as much a trade union issue as what’s traditionally seen as our core business.
So I think it’s as much about what are our priorities, what really makes a difference to people’s everyday lives, what are the issues people care about, what are the aspirations we have and how can we make our lives better, all of us. But ultimately, it’s about power and I think the more men who are prepared to stand alongside women and say we need a more equal distribution of power as well as wealth, the better.
What advice would you have for any young women, particularly those who might aspire to enter into positions of leadership?
I think my advice to other younger women would be to believe in yourself. And I would really want to personally encourage more and more women to be prepared to stand for leadership positions. I think if we’re honest about it, and I hope I’ve been honest about it in saying, I was daunted too, and there are, not just for women, for lots of men too, there are big questions about what would this mean for me, how much time would I have with my friends and family, will I have loads of pressure because I take on this role.
I understand there can be real worries about it and leadership can be tough too. But actually, doing low-paid part time work was much tougher than leading an organisation. It can be really frustrating knowing that you’ve got something to contribute but standing back and not going for it.
So there can be pros and cons and I just think that the more of us who do it, the stronger we’ll be. The more of us there are in positions of power, the more we can support each other and encourage even more women to come through. So there’s a kind of critical mass issue here that maybe we have to be prepared to take that leap of faith in ourselves as much as the position we’re going for.
And finally, who would you say, if you could, is your role model?
That’s a really hard one. Who’s my role model? Well, there are, clearly, loads of friends and good mates who have been role models for me. I always find the whole role models stuff quite difficult because it suggests there’s someone who’s perfect out there who you’re aspiring to be like and in the end, we can only be ourselves, but there have certainly been women who have inspired me and encouraged me and helped me go that bit further than maybe I would have done by myself.
So, women like Margaret Prosser, who was my boss at the Transport and General Workers’ Union and my own daughter who is a right fighter for equal rights and equality. There are women I meet every week of the year, I go out and about a lot, meeting women workers. If I ever need to recharge my batteries, that’s where I go because there are some incredible women who are tough, who are determined and who are not going to put up with unequal cruel treatment or crap pay any longer. There are lots of women out there who keep me going and I hope I keep them going too.