Tue | Jan 23, 2018

Where are the women? - Few female leaders in labour movement despite dominating workforce

Published:Thursday | February 16, 2017 | 12:00 AMWyvolyn Gager
Danny Roberts
Dr Orville Taylor
Kavan Gayle
Labour union pioneer and secretary of BITU, Edith Nelson, in discussion with Alexander Bustamante.
Aggie Bernard

Women dominate the Jamaican workforce and trade union membership. However, when one examines the top-tier leadership of labour unions, women are grossly underrepresented.

The dearth of female leaders in labour unions was highlighted recently when an all-male panel gathered at The Gleaner's Fourth Floor Forum at the North Street, Kingston, office to talk about the relevance of trade unions.

Sociologist and university lecturer Dr Orville Taylor decries the fact that Jamaican women have been written out of the history of the labour movement.

Going back in time, Taylor recalls pioneers like Aggie Bernard and the anchoring role that Edith Nelson played in the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). He reminded the participants that women were marching with St William Grant, Marcus Garvey and Alexander Bustamante.

"It's one of the big omissions that the modern trade union movement did not truly recognise and push women forward," lamented Taylor, who has studied the movement extensively.

Even though women were there marching with the men to gain recognition and union power, somehow this female talent pool became invisible and faded into obscurity.




BITU president-general, Senator Kavan Gayle, said things are a little different today, as he boasts that his union has a number of female delegates and two women are on the executive, including a general secretary who is under age 35.

Danny Roberts, who heads the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute, reasoned that what is true of the labour movement is equally true of politics. He feels that women accept this secondary role.

"In fact, at the base of the political parties, as the trade union movement, it's the women who carry the thing, but when it comes to leadership, for whatever reasons, they are not there. To some extent, there is a male-dominated notion within the trade union movement," he explained.

Are females encouraged to become leaders?

With the noticeable absence of women from leadership roles within the trade union movement, could a main factor be that they are not usually encouraged to apply for or even considered for the top job when there is a vacancy?

The Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) differs from most of the other unions because this is where woman power is in evidence at committee levels and at the highest rung of leadership.

"We have had a number of female presidents and the president-elect is a woman. In essence, when we look at our various committees that make up the union and the operations of the union, most are chaired by women," explained Howard Isaacs, current president of the JTA, during a Gleaner Fourth Floor Forum discussion recently at the media house's North Street, Kingston, office.

In the foreseeable future, women will continue to play a leadership role in the JTA, Isaacs predicted.

It really boils down to demographics, noted Dr Orville Taylor. The sociologist and university lecturer agreed that unions like the JTA and the nurses' association, which are female-dominated, will continue to take women seriously and embrace female leadership.




For a country that has been recognised by the International Labour Organization for outstanding leadership by its women, particularly in areas of business and media, it is ironic that women have not been able to enter the higher echelons of the major labour unions.

Taylor calls it a paradox.

"In a country where we have two labour parties in Parliament and where the political fabric was built under Marcus Garvey's recommendation that trade unions should form political parties and advocate for these things, that there is less gender balance within the trade union movement at the leadership level than you would see in the rest of society is contradictory," he said.

How then can women be encouraged to aspire to leadership roles in the unions?

Kavan Gayle, president-general of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, said global union partners that appear to be troubled by this imbalance are encouraging them to set up women's committees within the trade union movement to deal with women's issues and also to have it entrenched in their constitutions that women sit at leadership levels within the organisations.

"We have to find a way to break that cycle," declared Danny Roberts, head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute. "We have to make women feel empowered and not see themselves as females but as leaders in their own right so that they can rise to positions of influence."