Gender and Labor – women can benefit from trade unions?


Among many fields, where women are discriminated because of their gender, the labor market and issue of labor in general is one of the most oppressive for women. The work force of women is based on the assumption of the natural differences of men and women that determinate them to particular work. On this natural differences societies all around the globe have build the whole structure that is deeply gendered. This structure has many practical implication in women’s daily life. First of all, the work done by women at home is perceived as something natural and is not valued by men and society. The house duties, such as taking care of children, cooking, cleaning etc. are embedded in gender structure and are the responsibilities of women just because they are women. This is still the common belief. Secondly, this system is reproduced in the process of socialization and then in the system of education. Girls are put into gender roles and then many of their decision are shaped by the gendered social structure. The occupations which are more female and these that are more male are the products of gender stereotypes. Moreover, they are enforced by unequal structure of power in which women are in the submissive position. Third implication of this gendered system is the labor market. Because of the power, the stereotypes and the fixed structure, women are marginalized in the labor market. They earn less, even when they are more educated, doing the same work as men do. Women are not promoted as often as men because of the assumption that house duties may impact the quality of work they do. In many workplaces women are also prone to violence, sexual harassment and discrimination. This introduction to the women situation in the labor market aimed to present the very general picture of this issue. It is also an introduction to wide analysis of factors that impact the position of women in the modern labor marked in urbanized, globalized world.  The second part of this paper is the analysis of trade unions and the role that women can play in this type of associations. I would try to answer for the question how women may benefit from joining the trade unions which, in many cases, also reproduce the patriarchal system and oppressive structures of power.

Before conducting the analysis of women labor force and the trade unions I would like to highlight that this paper is focused on the experience of women in general. Nevertheless there is no such a thing as an universal experience of women. I am aware of other social characteristics that make women more or less discriminated. The most important are the class, the race, the ethnicity, the religion and the legal status in the country of stay (citizens versus illegal immigrants). All those characteristics categorize women among themselves. Gender is not universal social category. However, in this essay, I would simplify the social structure in order to explore what problems and obstacles women face in the labor market. Following this statement I would not focus on other differences within the women themselves. For instant, the issue of opposition of social classes leads to the situation when the working class women are exploited by the middle class women and the women from the elites in the same pattern as they are exploited by men. The same situation is in the case of indigenous people. In many region of the world the indigenous women suffer the same discrimination practices form the women as form the men. Despite those contradictions I will analyze what factors shape and influence the situation of women on the labor market.

Women in trade unions

The possibility to create trade unions seems to be one of the solution for women to have more impact on the working conditions and relations with the employers. In the setting of cruel neoliberal economy the collective actions may be one of the most effective actions in order to achieve the demands. From the historical and geographical perspective the collective actions are very successful in challenging the systems of power and introducing the social change. The report Women in trade unions: methods and good practices for gender mainstreaming published in 2006 presents various advantages of women participation and women taking leadership positions trade unions.  First of all, women as a marginalized group must have a voice in the organizations that aim to represent all workers. Secondly, there is a need for critical mass of women participation in trade unions in order to address the main problems such as lower income, maternity leaves, sexual harassment and others ( Dean 2006:7). Because historically, women entered the labor markets later than men their situation has never been stable enough to demand more changes in the working place. Now, when in United Stated women are the 44% of unions members are women ( Caizza 2007:1) and in European Union they are 40% of union members ( Dean 2006:5), women are able to challenge the system of oppression in the workplace. What is the socio-economic context they  need to act within?

The context of woman labor in modern world

The first significant change that has influenced the gender relations are the processes of globalization. In the case of situation of women, from the vide range effect that globalization caused, the most significant is the process of migrations. By the 2006 women were almost half of the group of international migrants. As Lourdes Benería , Carmen Diana Deere  and Naila Kabeer presented in their article on  immigration and gender:

Women migrants tend to be located in the lower echelons of labor markets. This is the case for manufacturing employment as well as for employment in the service and care sectors. Immigrant women’s employment opportunities tend to be in temporary and unstable jobs. Many governments, in both sending and receiving countries, are involved in some form of regulation of migrant labor, but this does not change the informal and mostly precarious character of women’s migration. Employment contracts tend to be temporary and unstable, both in high- and low-income countries (2012:7).

Migration has a huge impact on livelihood of women. As the article showed the female immigrants are prone to many threats in the county of destination. Especially when their legal status in unclear. They are under the threat of exploitation, violence and even being the victim of human trafficking. Migration may have a positive effects in women life as well. They may be more independent when it comes to decision-making, they are empowered to change their life and to fully develop in the counties that respect individual freedoms. Nevertheless, there is an enormous group of female migrants who were forced to migrate for many reason. They migrate because of poverty, violence, environmental damages. Most probably all those damages are somehow connected to the Global North. Either the Western countries impose reforms that worsen the situation in the developing countries or the Western companies have been constantly exploiting those countries for ages. Sometimes the only solution is to migrate to the countries that are the oppressing ones. Women are perceived as a cheap labor and they  are placed in the same system of oppression but in different geographical setting.

As one can observe when gender inequality goes outside the frame of households it is very visible in the economy. In my opinion the cultural gender inequality is not as harmful for women as the economic one. As it has been mentioned before that the globalization is connected with the neoliberal reforms, the liberalization of the market and trade and  the privatization. The role of the state has became weak since those reforms were introduced and one of the responsibility of the state is to support gender equality and represent interests of vulnerable groups. When the state is weak it fails those responsibilities. So the economy is strongly gendered structure. Diane Elson, who focuses on issues of gender and economy, pointed out three levels of economy and on each of the levels there is the inequality between men and women. The first level is the macro-level. Even though the men and women are doing the same work, the commodity economy is relatively male intensive and the care economy is relatively female intensive (Elson 1998:4). The meso-level  is the level of state economy and public services which are also gendered. The common values and norms lead to the situation when women have less rights or their needs are not recognized in the law, for instance in the case of reproductive rights. The last level is the micro-level on which boys and girls have both different roles and responsibilities in households (Elson 1998:4). As one can observe the economy is gendered on every level. What is embedded in modern, neoliberal economy is unequal structure of power that aim to profit from the economic activities by all means. Women are those  who suffer from this ideology the most.

The last issue that is related with gender and the situation of female workers is the urbanization. Since more than the half of world population lives in urban areas ( UN HABITAT 2008) the situation of women has changed as well. The massive migration from the rural areas to the cities has had an impact on the structures of families and local communities. The communities in the cities are more diverse and, in many cases also divided. Huge social inequalities and the pace of life result in increase of violence both in the private and public sphere. The women as those who are more prone to the violence in the cities as they are very often the target of sexual violence in the streets. At home, in the private sphere, the women are under the threat of violence form the intimate partner or the members of family. Nevertheless the urban areas are not entirely hostile environment for women. The cities have the potential of empowerment as in diverse urban context women can challenge the way how they have been raised. Women have been working on the strategies how to create safer cities for ages. The Montreal Declaration on Women’s Safety (2002)  and  the Bogota Declaration on Women’s Safety (2004) are kind of roadmaps for urban governance regarding women safety. There are five basic strategies that may improve women safety in the cities (Moser 2012:438). First two are based on the inclusion women in the urban governance. The crucial thing is to recognize the women right to the city. Other tools that may be used is the audits about women safety and the gender-based budgeting. The last one, pointed out by Moser, the author of the article Mainstreaming women’s safety in cities into gender-based policy and programmes,  is the economic development for women (2012:439). The governance of the cities should responds to the needs of various groups. The neoliberal ideology perceives the cities as a space for generating economic growth. In this perspective  the cities do not suppose to be designed for any marginalized and discriminated groups. If women are able to reclaim their right to the city they will be also able to challenge the patriarchal social structure.

Empowerment through participation

How does the safety in the cities relate to the situation of women at workplaces? The more women feel safe in their environment and the more impact they have over their lifes the more empower they become. As a result they feel more confident in demanding their rights. The complex transformation of women livelihood must be done on every level. Family, daily life, activities in the cities, workplaces, all those spaces have to be transformed in order to  respond for women needs and women must have an possibility to lead this transformation.

The report I Knew I Could Do This Work. Seven Strategies That Promote Women’s Activism and Leadership in Unions was published in 2007 by Institute for Women’s Policy Research and it based on qualitative research. The researchers used the in-depth interviews to explore the experiences of women in the trade unions. There group of respondents represented different background from the entire United States. The strategies presented in this report are based on the experiences of the women and their interpretations of the reality of trade union. It is a very significant step forward empowerment of women and ending the discourse of the experts who know better how to empower people. The data analysis of the interviews has led researcher to main findings. They presented them as seven strategies of promoting women leadership in the trade unions.  I briefly summarize those ideas. The first strategy is to address women’s true priorities. In the structure of power in trade unions, women’s voice (despite the fact they are the big part of the trade unions)  is not heard. They have different problems that men do, such as childcare, maternity leave, sexual harassment etc. In order to address women’s interest properly they need adequate representation in the structure of the trade unions. This is second strategy – the mentoring program for women. As one of the respondents noticed:

I had a couple of wonderful mentors….  I think as folks have for them before, what they did for me was to draw out those qualities or those traits that I have, emphasize or help me emphasize my principles, help me work towards actively living my principles (2007:21).

The third and the fourth strategies are focusing on the enabling women to get to the leadership positions by creating women working groups. Those groups will represent women’s interest and make sure the demands will be mainstreamed in the trade union agenda. Women also need to recognize that they have skill which may contribute to the trade unions. Many women have organizational skills, they are task oriented and focus on the work they do. As one of the respondent pointed:

I raised a kid, put my husband through school, and just didn’t realize what a learning experience this was for me. We just learned how to multi-task (2007:31).

The sixth strategy is to provide the flexible options for participation in the trade unions. In many cases women are not able to be the full time member because of other responsibilities (most often at home). However they want to get involved. That is why the trade unions shall adapt some activities to women lifestyles. For instance provide childcare or do not require the presence on every meeting. It is important to recognize the needs of women if the trade unions aspire to be more inclusive. The last strategy is providing training on mobilizing women. With some support women will challenge the patriarchal structure and fight for their rights. I quote again one of the respondents as I think the voices of union activists is crucial for this paper. One of the women said:

It’s all about equality, and we’re all human, and we shouldn’t be treated differently based on gender by any means. Anything that’s available for one person should be available to everyone. It should be about your credentials not about your sex (2007:36).



The trade unions have an enormous potential in terms of women empowerment. They are the space where women can gather and share their experience form the workplaces. In the neoliberal economy the trade unions are perceived more as an obstacle for the economic growth. Nowadays the unions’ activists are vulnerable for violence because of activism for workers rights. But the struggle is being carrying on for decades and women has been an integral element of it. Despite the male domination is the leadership positions women are able to reclaim their space in the trade unions. There is a common goal of both male and female workers that is respect of workers’ rights. Based on this common value the trade unions have to represent the interests of all workers. And women are part of the working class. The fact that for ages the work of woman at home was not valued does not mean that their economic work should not be valued. The collective actions are one of the solution that may challenge the oppressive system. The trade unions offer space, tools and recourses for those actions. I strongly belief that the time of trade unions is not over. In the globalized, urban world the communication is much more easier. This is a great opportunity to building strong network of resistance, to exchange knowledge and experiences. And in this setting women may finally achieve they demand of equal treatment.


Caiazza, Amy. I Knew I Could Do This Work. Seven Strategies That Promote Women’s Activism and Leadership in Unions. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2007.

Dean, Homa. Women in trade unions:methods and good practices for gender mainstreaming . Brussel : European Trade Union Institute for Research, Education and Health and Safety, 2006.

Elson, Diane. Gender and Economic Development. Rotterdam : The Netherlands, DGIS and NEI , 1998.

Lourdes Benería, , Carmen Diana Deere , Naila Kabeer. „Gender and International Migration: Globalization, Development, and Governance.” Feminist Economics, 2012: 1-33.

Moser, Caroline. „Mainstreaming women’s safety in cities into gender-based policy and programmes.” Gender & Development, 2012: 435-452.

UN HABITAT. State of World’s Cities 2010/11. Bridging the Urban Divide. London: UN HABITAT, 2008.