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Women’s conference raises key issues

4th May 2020

The TUC Women’s conference took place ahead of International Women’s Day in March. A delegation of Community activists from across the union’s sectors and regions participated. The annual event brings together women trade unionists from around the UK to discuss the priorities for the union movement that directly affect women.

Community’s delegates spoke in a number of the debates during the conference on equal parental leave, on sexual harassment and on the menopause.

Sue Mather, a Community National Executive Council member who works at Liberty Steel in South Yorkshire spoke for the union on the debate on equal parental leave saying that “when women have children, gender inequality grows.”

“In 2018 the World Economic Forum said global gender equality wouldn’t be reached for another 202 years and the journey towards gender equality has actually stalled.

“While we must acknowledge the decades of achievements that women’s campaigners have fought to win: more women in work than ever before, the growth of flexible working, professional childcare and increase of women in education –that we are still fighting for basic equality at home and at work is a fact that should shame societies all over the world.”

Sue highlighted the fact that women are still expected to take up caring responsibilities and that “women’s ability to choose is taken from them by employers who do not grant adequate leave entitlements to fathers.”

“A policy targeted at men to improve equity for women might sound unusual or counterintuitive, but for as long as we continue to pay women less at work and with eye-watering childcare costs, what choice is left to women starting a family as the atypical lower earner but to become the predominant carer?”

Community called for ‘a shared burden of leave and cover’ between parents to help increase the demand for women in work.

But legislating for change is not enough “employers have a societal duty to ensure equal leave is encouraged, remunerating both maternity and paternity leave packages adequately and creating cultures where men feel able and supported to play an equal role in the home,” Sue argued.

She went on to point out the benefits of equalising parental leave, including that ‘when men take parental leave, research shows that women see a decline in post-natal depression, sick leave and an increase in wellbeing.”

Community also spoke in support of the motion on ending sexual harassment.

Maisha Miah, a finance worker from London, spoke on behalf of Community.

“As a young union member, I am so pleased that the issue of sexual harassment has been raised by many unions and is on the agenda of workplaces and trade unions. The issue is getting a lot more airtime, than it has ever done before.

Maisha gave a powerful account of her own personal experience of sexual harassment.

“I was 14 years old when I was first sexually harassed. This is the same age as some of your daughters, sisters, nieces,, granddaughters.  I felt like it was my fault that I was being followed, being cat called and shouted at. I thought I had somehow provoked it. I was scared and upset and just outright confused. I should not have been made to feel the way I did especially at 14 years old.

“I am now 20 years old. I would have loved to have said that over the past 6 years I have not been sexually harassed however this is not the case.”

Maisha called for more awareness raising “from schools to colleges to workplaces to public places”.

“No one should be subjected to “banter”, offensive jokes, inappropriate messages, being followed, being catcalled, being assaulted or any unwanted sexual behaviour.

“We all know so many women never report it, we should be confident that when we do report it, we can do it without there being any repercussions, knowing it will be taken seriously and investigated properly.”

The union is signed up to the ‘This is not working’ campaign, an alliance of unions and other organisations, which is calling for a new legal duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to protect workers from sexual harassment and victimisation.

The final speaker from Community was Marie Schulze, a branch secretary in Community’s justice, custodial & immigration services sector. Marie spoke about how menopause is a workplace issue.

“The menopause is normal, a fact of life. But in many workplaces, it is a silent issue,” she told the delegates.

“Everyone experiences a different menopause, and everyone should make their own decision about how to experience it. Employers have been too slow to recognise the menopause as an issue that they ought to consider when designing workplaces, supporting employees or working practices. It’s an issue many managers openly admit they don’t know enough about, and employers must work to educate their staff about the menopause itself and the duty on them to provide adequate support and adjustments.”

Community launched its new menopause toolkit to help reps and members just after the conference on International Women’s Day.

Lauren Crowley, Community’s Head of Equalities, said:

“We were pleased to get support for some of the key issues affecting our women members right across the union. Although Community’s membership work across all different sectors of the economy, so many of the challenges that women face in the workplace are common across employers. We want to create a more equal and fairer working world for everyone, joining together with other women trade unionists reminds us that this is not something that we are doing alone.”

The conference took place at the TUC’s Congress House in London from 4 – 6 March.