Britain’s male-dominated unions are allowing chauvinism to erode their power as more women enter the labour market, a groundbreaking new study has suggested.
The research, the first of its kind in the UK, reveals how the changing male-female mix in the workplace has underpinned a dramatic decline in union membership.
According to the study, carried out by Nottingham University Business School
, many women employees are reluctant to join unions because they perceive them as sexist.
But even more significant is the fact that many men withdraw their membership because they feel threatened by the prospect of greater female involvement. The resulting decline is likely to be halted and reversed only if unions fully recognise and embrace the diversity of workplaces in the 21st century, says the research.
Dr Getinet Haile, who carried out the study, said: “Some 53% of Britain’s workers were union members in 1979, but by 1999 that figure had fallen to just 28%. Various factors have been blamed for this drop, but the principal reason, by common consent, has been a failure to organise workers in new establishments.
“In terms of why unions have struggled in this regard, it’s worth noting that the fall in membership has coincided with a marked rise in women’s share of the labour market. Also worth considering is the long-held and widespread perception — justified or otherwise — of gender discrimination within the union decision-making structure.
“Taking these issues into account, we set out to see whether chauvinism has played a part in lessening unions’ appeal and, as a consequence, eroding their power. We clearly demonstrate that antagonism between the sexes has been a significant factor — but that it’s men, not women, who are really at the heart of the problem.”
The study drew on the 2004 British Workplace Employment Relations Survey, which contains information representative of all UK businesses with five or more workers. The key variables available from the data, regarded as the most authoritative of its kind, are workplace gender diversity (WGD) and workplace union density (WUD).
These allowed researchers to measure for the first time the relationship between the male-female composition of a business and employees’ union participation.
It was found firms where over half the workforce is female experience a fall in WUD of up to 15 percentage points relative to those where over half the employees are men.
In addition, in female-dominated workplaces union membership actually increases along with overall diversity – that is, as more men enter the workplace.
Dr Haile, a lecturer in industrial economics, said: “People might be surprised to learn a male-dominated organisation’s decline has more to do with men than women. But group competition theory suggests a dominant group becomes more hostile towards a subordinate group if the latter threatens the former’s advantage.
“It therefore seems reasonable to argue that women’s greater presence in the labour market over the past 30 years has intensified antagonism between the sexes. Predictably, this results in some women being deterred from joining a male-dominated union — but it also prompts some men to withdraw their membership.
“These are the men who hold chauvinist views and fear their ‘traditional’ approach is being challenged. In short, these are the men who resist change.”
Dr Haile said the findings demonstrated that, despite workplace diversity changing radically in recent decades, unions have not fully moved with the times.
Era of increased diversity
He added: “The harsh truth is that workplace demographics have altered dramatically since the 1970s, whereas union demographics, by comparison, have not. Despite some efforts in the right direction, it seems there’s still a way to go before women are truly accepted into unions and become part of their inner workings.
“Unionisation has always been underpinned by the concept of solidarity. That’s harder to achieve in an era of increased diversity, but it’s by no means impossible.”
Prime Minister David Cameron recently described trade unions as a “threat to our economy” amid the continuing threat of a general strike involving millions of workers.
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