BFAWU Greggs Representative, Executive Council Member and newly elected Full-Time Official for Region 5, Sarah Woolley reports from the Union's first ever Women's Forum, which took place at Whelley Labour Club, Wigan on February 27th 2016:
At our Annual Conference in June 2015, we recognised that female membership in the BFAWU had fallen by quite a significant amount. As I was the females’ Executive Council member at the time, I challenged branches to look inwardly at themselves in order to identify whether they were inclusive or perceived as a ‘boys only’ club. In addition to this, I 'put the feelers out' nationally around the regions in order to organise a Women’s Forum and on Saturday the 27th February, the BFAWU held its very first one in Wigan!
There was a fairly small group of us and we began the forum with an overview of discrimination issues and family friendly rights from Sadiq Vohra from Slater and Gordon Solicitors. He explained how complicated the new shared parental leave can be and how important it is to research every aspect of it before making any applications. But what resonated with me the most was when Sadiq spoke to us about harassment and explained that it is about how you feel. If you feel offended personally, no one can tell you that you don’t and that is what is important. As soon as you feel that way, it needs to be reported and all evidence collected immediately, as this strengthens cases.
We then looked at the courses that the BFAWU provide via the learning services and suggested developing a course based around keeping safe online, especially around social media sites. If you’re not careful, a whole world of information can be found out about you, as a few of our female activists found out when they were recently targeted by some very aggressive right wing groups.
We spoke in depth about the structural set up of the Trade Union Movement agreeing that in 2016, it is still very male orientated and even the strongest, loudest of women can easily be ‘drowned out’, which can severely affect confidence and actually put women off even attempting to become involved. This appears to be happening at all levels of the movement.
Women still hold the majority of the caring responsibilities at home; from looking after children to after they grow up and fly the nest before then in many cases, caring for ageing parents. This means that evening meetings may well be inaccessible and activism therefore takes a back step. We need to be aware of this as a movement and support women wanting to become active by making meetings more accessible for example; holding them in the morning or simply rotating the times/days.
Austerity hits women far harder than men and we suggested that as a Union, we should create more links with groups designed to support and help women through this, and even help develop them for the sake of our members.
As active women in our Union, we decided that we need to be the driving force of change. We need to work together, support each other and make our voice louder by way of our collectivism. By doing this I believe we can change the dynamic of the structure and make it a more balanced and equal one. We can no longer rely on others to do it for us!