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A woman's place is in the union!

Understanding Gender

A Struggle Within the Struggle 

COSATU Political Education Booklet,  
July 2000  

Table of Contents


    Message from the President

  1. Setting the context
    1. What is Gender?
    2. Patriarchy, Capitalism and Apartheid

  2. Gender and trade unions
    1. The position of women in trade unions and the workplace
    A woman's place is in the driving seat...
A woman's place is in the struggle
    1. Misunderstanding Gender
    2. Gender and power relations in trade unions
    3. Barriers to women's full participation in trade unions

  1. Transforming Gender Relations
    1. "A struggle within the struggle"


This booklet is based on a NALEDI Research Report entitled Assessing Gender Structures in COSATU written by Liesl Orr. Many COSATU members were interviewed for the Research Report. Their views have been included in this booklet.

Message from the president

Gender issues have been both a thorny and neglected area in the Federation. This has been seen as only an area that only women and women members should be linked to. Our Congress in the past two years has begun a route to go out of this mode. To begin to make issues affecting women and women workers trade union and federation issues.

Cosatu in this booklet envisages taking the struggles of women to the center stage of debate. The intention is to create awareness and consciousness of gender issues in the federation and all its structures. Our main challenges are to ensure that women are able to take leadership in all areas, and to ensure that male comrades play a role in supporting the struggle for gender equality.

Another purpose in developing this booklet was to ensure that we also go beyond theoretical inputs on Gender questions but also begin to assist our regions and leadership, particularly women leadership in understanding their tasks and in the process develop further as leaders.

We are not saying this is a finality of our effort but we are trying to lay a foundation in advancing skills and also activism of women generally within the federation as part of the working class struggles.

Willie Madisha

COSATU President

  1. Setting the context
    1. What is Gender?
    2. People often use the words "gender" and "sex" as if they mean the same thing. You don't have what I have!

      This is not the case.


      Sex refers to the physical differences between men and women – like women can have children and men cannot.

      These are the differences that we are born with and which cannot be changed.


      Gender refers to the different roles and identities that we are given depending on whether we are male or female.

      Many societies treat boys and girls differently from birth

      Among the Turkana people of Northern Kenya, women gather when a child is to be born. If the baby is a boy, the cord is cut with a spear and four goats are slaughtered for the women to have a feast. The spear is later used to kill a bull, which both the woman and her husband eat as a sign that he will now have someone to help care for the animals. But if the baby is a girl, a knife is used to cut the cord, only one goat is slaughtered and there is no feasting.

      Turkana song for a girl

      When you grow
      May you have a rich and good husband
      And remember all of us here at home
      And continue to help us

      Turkana song for a boy

      When you grow
      You will take care of the home, the property
      And protect your mothers and sisters

      From very young, boys and girls are encouraged to take on different roles.

      Girls are taught to do housework while boys are expected to be active outside the home. When we grow up, what we learnt when we were still young shapes what we do as adults.

      Women normally become responsible for looking after the home while men are seen as the breadwinners. This is called the sexual division of labour.

      Culture can also influence gender roles. For example the experiences of an urban Hindu woman would differ from those of a rural Xhosa woman.

      Institutions such as the family, education and schools, the church and religion, the economy, the state and laws all reinforce our gender roles.

      The gender roles that we learn also create expectations of men and women.

      Men are supposed to be ‘natural’ leaders, decision-makers and providers whereas women are supposed to be caregivers, supporters and followers of men. This does not have to be the case though. Men and women could be all these things but this would require a major change in gender relations.

      The different gender roles we play are not fixed at birth and are what we all learn and finally choose.

      The important difference between sex and gender therefore is that gender relations are created by our society and can be changed.

      Power relations

      Gender is not only about roles and expectations but is also about the relationship between women and men. Behind the curtain of gender lies oppression of women...

      In most societies, men tend to have more power than women. They are therefore able to make and take decisions that women do not feel they have the power to.

      While societies might develop different roles and tasks for people, this should not be based on oppression and subordination. It is therefore important for us to understand the power relations between women and men in different circumstances and societies so that we can change them.

      Questions for Discussion

      1. Read the poem below and discuss what you think and feel about it.

      2. Discuss the story about the birth of girls and boys in Kenya, and compare this to the cultural practices that you know about.

      3. Think about gender roles and expectations that you have experienced and discuss these.

      4. Discuss which situations make you feel powerful and those where you feel you have no power.

      5. In what ways would you like to see gender relations changing?

      6. What might you need to change about yourself personally to change gender relations/to achieve this?

      For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong;
      There is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

      For every woman who is tired of acting dumb;
      There is a man who is burdened with the responsibility of ‘knowing everything’.

      For every women who is tired of being called an ‘emotional female’;
      There is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle.

      For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes;
      There is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove he is masculine.

      For every woman who is tired of being a sex object;
      There is a man who must worry about his potency.

      For every woman who feels ‘tied down’ by her children;
      There is a man who is denied the full pleasure of parenthood.

      For every woman who is denied meaningful employment and equal pay;
      There is a man who must bear the financial responsibility for another human being.

      For every woman who was not taught the intricacies of an automobile;
      There is a man who was not taught the satisfaction of cooking.

      For every woman who takes a step towards her own liberation;
      There is a man who finds that the way to freedom has been made a little easier.

    3. Patriarchy, Capitalism and Apartheid
    4. Patriarchy, capitalism and apartheid are connected and each system benefits the other. Let’s look at how. To do this, we need to start by finding out what is meant by patriarchy.

      What is Patriarchy?

      System: Patriarchy refers to a system of male domination over women. Because it is a system, this means that it has been created and has not come about by accident. Different parts of society, like schools, churches and workplaces, make sure that this system remains in place. This is supported by a particular ideology.

      Ideology is a set of ideas or beliefs. Ideology is often used to justify why some people should be superior to others, like whites to blacks and women to me. Ideology can therefore be used to defend oppression.

      Patriarchy is a Greek word meaning ‘rule of the father’.

      This word refers to the system of male domination over women in society.

      This domination takes different forms whether through discrimination, disregard, insult, control, exploitation, or violence.

      This can happen in the family, the workplace and in broader society.

      Patriarchy does not survive on its own.

      Linked to the system of patriarchy is an ideology that sees men as superior to women. This ideology suggests that women are men’s property and should be controlled by them.

      How are women controlled in a patriarchal system? (1)

      Women are controlled in different ways in a patriarchal society:

      Women’s labour power
      • Women do housework and do not get paid for this

      • Women are forced to sell their labour at very low wages

      Women’s reproductive power (the power to have children)
      • In many societies women do not have the freedom to decide how many children they want, whether to use contraception or have an abortion

      • Individual males (women’s partners) and male-dominated institutions like the church or the state control women’s reproductive power. (e.g. by refusing use of contraceptives)

      • Women’s reproductive health is often not protected. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that half a million women die in childbirth each year.

      Women’s sexuality
      • Women are expected to provide sexual services to men

      • Women are not allowed to talk about their sexual needs, while society expects this of men. At the same time women are often blamed for ‘attracting men’ by the way they dress or behave. If women have many partners they are also not respected while this is considered normal for men.

      Women’s mobility
      • In some cultures women are not allowed out in public places and have to stay at home. In other cultures, while women are not forbidden to go out, this happens in practice.

      • Women fear rape and this restricts where they go.

      Property and economic resources
      • With the ownership of private property under capitalism, and before, Women’s oppression worsened as property was passed on from father to son

      • Women still do not have the legal right to own land in many countries

      • According to UN statistics women do 60% of the world’s work, yet only get 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property.

      Holding up a mirror...

      In a patriarchal system, gender relations often lead to women’s oppression.

      This oppression differs depending on race, class, religion, marital status and age.

      In South Africa women’s oppression has been made worse because of capitalism and apartheid.

      Let’s turn now and look at when women’s oppression first started and how it has developed over the years.

      When did women’s oppression first start?
      Colonialism and Apartheid

      Mining was the most important industry in colonial South Africa. In order to increase profits, the mines needed cheap labour. The government introduced laws to make this happen. The first law introduced taxes and forced men in rural areas to migrate to the urban areas to earn cash to pay the taxes. However there was still a shortage of labour as black people managed to subsist off the land.

      The Land Act of 1913 was another Act passed to deal with the labour shortage. Black people were not limited to 7% of the land and their source of livelihood was instantly removed. “Native reserves” were also set up and these served as labour pools for the mines. Women were forced to remain in these reserves. This suited employers as they could justify low wages by arguing that women were subsisting in these areas with their families.

      Restrictions were placed on women working and living in urban areas through the pass laws. For many years the only economic activities open to black women were beer brewing and prostitution. Black women were later allowed to work under extremely exploitative conditions as domestic workers and cleaners.

      Women’s oppression has existed for thousands of years so many people see it as natural. This is not the case. In hunter-gatherer societies there was a sexual division of labour, where men did most of the hunting and women did most of the gathering. The reasons for this were biological – women carried breastfeeding children on their back and this would not have been possible if they were hunters. Despite this, this did not lead to oppressive or unequal relations because everyone had access to the tools they needed for survival.

      In agricultural societies

      The earliest roots of women’s oppression can be seen in agricultural societies where food was produced through growing crops and herding animals. Food production was mainly women’s work, while men herded cattle, hunted and traded. Over time people began producing more food than they needed and there was a surplus. Partly because of their role as traders, men came to have more control over the surplus (the wealth) of society. This meant that they started to have more power than women.

      Women’s Oppression and Capitalism - Understanding the links
      Unpaid labour

      Under capitalism, society is divided into two classes – owners and workers. Workers are forced to sell their labour, while owners use private property (farms and factories) to exploit workers and to make profits. In order for this society to continue, it has to do two things – produce goods to live on and reproduce labour power.

      Women are seen as ‘naturally’ responsible for the reproductive functions and men are seen as performing essentially productive functions. There is an important difference between this sexual division of labour and that of previous societies. Production in factories is now physically separated from reproduction in the home. Under capitalism the family/household is used to keep women oppressed.

      Reproductive functions include caring for the family and work in the home, such as raising children, serving their husbands, cooking in the home and washing the clothes, which is unpaid labour. This benefits the capitalists as the labour force is reproduced at no additional cost to them.

      While reproductive work is unpaid, undervalued and invisible, our society relies on this for its survival. Even though women’s unpaid labour is essential for the reproduction of society and the economy, it is seen as less important than the productive functions that men perform.

      Women have since entered waged work but have experienced difficulties as the state also does not take responsibility for providing for the reproduction of society (through providing basic services and infrastructure and child-care). This has meant that women have had to combine waged work with childcare and domestic work. This has intensified the sexual division of labour.

      We need to recognise that this hidden unpaid labour has a strong class, and in South Africa, racial dimension to it. Hidden labour in the Sandton household is not the same as in the Khayelitsha household. In Sandton, there are high tech microwaves, dishwashers and washing machines that are operated by the domestic worker. In Khayelitsha, the burden of unpaid labour falls on the shoulders of the mothers and daughters of the household. So the exposure and struggle against hidden reproductive labour is particularly a working class issue since it is working class women who bear the brunt of it – in their own homes and as domestic workers in other people’s homes.

      Dividing workers – Different jobs / pay for "different" workers

      Even when women do get waged work, their jobs are often similar to those they do at home – like cleaning, nursing and teaching. They are also not highly valued and can be extremely poorly paid. Capitalists argue that they can pay a woman less than a man because he is the head of the household and the breadwinner. At the same time, they take advantage of cheap and vulnerable female labour to undercut the wages that men receive.

      Men and women are also separated into different types of jobs, in different types of industries with different levels of skill and responsibility. This is referred to as "labour market segmentation". This can happen along race or gender lines. Race and gender divisions often coincide with class divisions. For example, white men dominate the capitalist class, and black women are amongst the poorest. However, class divisions are not the same as race and gender divisions. For example, white workers may act in racist ways to protect their privileged position, and trade unions can maintain a high level of sexism within the rank and file.

      Capitalism benefits from unpaid labour because the labour force is reproduced at no additional cost to them...

      By segmenting the workforce, the divisions created among workers make collective action more difficult and weaken the power of labour. Capitalists benefit from patriarchy precisely because the divisions make them stronger and they are able to make better profits. The elimination of women’s oppression therefore requires the elimination of capitalism. However, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that by ending capitalism we will automatically end women’s oppression. This means that overcoming women’s oppression in our society cannot be delayed as if it were a "side-issue". The struggles against the legacy of colonialism and apartheid and the struggle for socialism cannot be consolidated unless we consciously struggle against women’s oppression.

      Questions for Discussion

      1. What are typical 'men's jobs' and 'women's jobs' in your industry?

      2. What other kinds of work do women do that is invisible?

      3. Why is it important to link struggles against capitalism, patriarchy and racism?

      4. Can you think of some of the ways in which unions perpetuate sexism?

  2. Gender and trade unions
    1. The position of women in trade unions and the workplace
    2. Building union democracy necessarily implies women’s full participation because it means listening to the ones who are not listened to.’

      Workers are women and men, casual and permanent, ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’. Real democracy means giving a voice and space to all these workers – particularly those that are most exploited. The trade union movement must take up this challenge to build real democracy and worker control. But what obstacles do they face in doing this? What is the position of women in trade unions and the workplace today?

      Globalisation: women as a flexible ‘cheap’ labour force

      More and more women now work in global companies in insecure, casual and unprotected work. According to the ICFTU (1996:5)(2).

      "Women represent the great majority of the workforce in the new bastions of globalisation in the developing countries: the informal sector, the export processing zones and home working, exposed to deplorable working conditions, exploitation and fierce anti-union repression."

      Women have thus been the hardest hit by globalisation. Almost 70% of the world’s poor are women, and in nearly every country they work longer hours than men. Capitalists, in their search for bigger profits, are using women more and more as a flexible ‘cheap’ labour force.

      Organising Women and Unprotected Workers

      It is very difficult to organise workers into unions when work is not secure. On the one hand there might be union repression from employers and government. On the other, the trade unions themselves might fail to address gender issues like looking at the particular conditions and challenges facing women.

      Trade unions need to take up the challenge of organising casual workers and domestic workers...

      Women workers often feel that trade unions do not take up issues that concern them. Organising women workers and particularly those in insecure employment requires new, creative strategies and efforts. The traditional approach to organising in factories cannot be applied where workers are more scattered and vulnerable. In some countries where there are significant numbers of workers in export processing zones, trade unions have had success in organising through communities rather than the workplace.

      In South Africa, trade unions need to take up the challenge of organising casual workers and domestic workers. Domestic work is one of the most challenging problems facing the union movement, as there is extreme class exploitation, widespread racism, oppression of women, and an isolated and increasingly casualised workforce.

      Gender and Collective Bargaining

      Collective bargaining is at the heart of all trade union activity. The needs and concerns of all union members – including women – must therefore be taken forward. Despite this, collective bargaining demands often ignore the problems that women workers face, such as lower pay, segmentation, sexual harassment and the difficulty in combining work and family responsibilities. The lack of women organisers and the limited understanding of gender issues by male organisers make these problems worse.

      When demands are taken up for women workers – such as maternity rights – these are the first to be compromised on. Maternity rights are also often thought to be the only issues affecting women. Some unions have managed to make good progress in collective bargaining campaigns though, particularly on parental rights issues.

      Women’s Leadership in Trade Unions

      Men mostly lead trade unions all over the world. This is even the case in countries that have made significant progress in increasing the participation of women in parliament and other institutions.

      Men mostly lead trade unions...

      As the Vice-President of the Danish labour federation suggests:

      "Denmark is seen as a haven of gender equality, but in the Danish trade union federation we have only 4 seats out of 21 on the executive board, even though we have about 40% women members. The trade union represents the last patriarchal ship in the democratic sea."

      In Columbia, a similar situation exists. Women there seem to believe the ideology that says that they are inferior and incapable of leading organisations. A representative of the Colombian trade union federation, CUT, described an experience she had at the Colombian national women’s leadership school:

      When we start the training we ask the participants how many of them would stand for the position of chair or secretary in their union – one-tenth said they would. After a year of training eight out of ten say they want to be a chair or secretary. When they leave the school they realise that they can put forward proposals and that they can speak out whereas when they start they often feel unable to represent the knowledge they already have.

      However, some of the male trade unionists became opposed to this leadership school, because they feel threatened:

      "Male union members have not been very supportive of this initiative, claiming that women who graduate from the school become ‘problem cases’. They refuse to allow the union to pay for the tuition fees and they make it difficult for students to obtain the authorisation necessary for them to attend the school."

      COSATU has similar problems of male domination. Even in those trade unions organising in industries where there are mainly women, as you move up the decision-making structures from shopsteward to national office bearer, fewer and fewer women are found. There is still no COSATU affiliate with a female General Secretary, so structures like the EXCO are virtually all men. When women are elected as office bearers they are usually treasurers or vice chairpersons, because these positions are seen as less powerful. We are enhancing gender representivity - we are putting more women in leadership positions.

      Many trade unions internationally have used affirmative action mechanisms like reserved seats, targets or quotas to increase the number of women leadership. Where they have used concrete strategies often these have had a ‘snowball effect’. This means that in trade unions where more women were included, more women were elected into leadership positions, the union took up more gender issues and more women workers joined the union.

      Finally though, women have to accept their own power if they are to become leaders. This quote from a textile worker in Brazil, who stood up in the ICFTU Women’s Conference and passionately addressed the delegates sums this up:

      "I have been a cutter since 1963. In our union 90% of the workers are women but in 57 years we have never been chaired by a woman. The President said it was because we women didn’t want to participate so he didn’t leave that position because there was no one to take over and women were not trained enough. But we are trained in struggle, comrades, because we have been through it all as women and workers. I have a picture in my mind of when we led a strike – we were standing in front of the factory gate at dawn and I looked around and saw hundreds of women with nothing but their bare faces and their courage. I say to my brothers in the trade unions I don’t want to be ahead of you I don’t want to be behind you I want to be shoulder to shoulder building a fair and decent world.

      Committees for Gender Equality

      Unions all over the world have set up committees to struggle for gender equality in trade unions and to make sure that they take up gender issues in the workplace.

      Gender committees often do not have real influence in unions...

      Sometimes these are separate structures for women only, and sometimes they include both women and men. Most unions have found that these structures often do not have real influence over the union or the highest decision-making bodies.

      In COSATU, most affiliates have established gender or women’s structures. COSATU took a resolution that all affiliates should have full-time gender co-ordinators, but not all unions have implemented this.

      The Bar versus the Gender Workshop

      In most unions, gender structures are not at the core of the work in the unions. Gender co-ordinators are often administrators, who are often not given the space to do gender work, and generally do not have status and influence in unions.

      Trade unions are faced with many challenges in building organisations that are a home for women workers. These include:

      • Getting rid of all barriers to women’s participation in unions;

      • building women’s leadership;

      • organising the unorganised; and

      • improving the position of women in the workplace.

      An “obsession” with structures

      A key problem with union structures in general, and gender structures specifically, is that unionists do not spend enough time defining the structure’s role, aims and objectives. In an interview, a union educator remarked that there is an ‘obsession’ with setting up structures without being clear what they are meant to do.

      ‘We tend to believe that if we have structures that meet often enough, we’re dealing with problems and we have functional structures. So we set up a national gender forum – we’re not sure what its going to do, but we know that we need one. We don’t first say how best can we get an exciting, vibrant women’s movement, then ask what kind of co-ordination we need. The first thing we do is establish a gender forum and the first task of the gender forum is to ensure that each region and local has a gender forum. And then we say gender structures are not functioning, we must work harder.

      Instead, the most important goal would be to make sure that women are strong and organised:

      …an organisation has to harness energy that’s there already. So, I think we need something more organic. We need women being more organised, women refusing to be pushed around, women saying we will adopt a quota system, we want a firm campaign on maternity leave. We need women supporting each other, strategising, and taking up clear and simple demands.’ (educator)

      The link between gender, education and campaigns

      Unions often separate out education, campaigns and organising work. Gender issues are thought to fall under education (through awareness raising workshops) and are not seen as related to building organisation. Both education and gender should be about building organisation though. For example, a vibrant and active campaign around maternity pay could build the union while at the same time raise awareness about gender issues, and specifically the link between patriarchy, capitalism and government policies. Unions need to have a far more integrated approach to raising awareness and building organisation.

      Gender structures are being seen more and more as a forum to build men’s awareness about gender issues. It is hoped that through these gender structures men will change and there will be less resistance to gender issues. The union’s overall political and organisational programme – not only gender structures – should contribute towards making members aware of gender issues though. Gender structures should be seen as places to strategise. Through visible and dynamic campaigns and activities, members would be indirectly concientised anyway.

      "I think that people will become more conscientised around women’s problems if women become more vocal around them. And I don’t think our gender structures are facilitating that vocalness. I think they’re almost cushioning it. They’re almost muting it. (educator)

    3. Misunderstanding gender
    4. Gender is not a new concept in the unions. Already a number of trade unions have set up gender structures. Nevertheless, the concept of gender is frequently misunderstood and misused. Here are some of the ways in which this happens:

      Howzit, Comrade Gender!
      • “Gender is just another term for women’s issues”
      • Gender and women are seen to be one and the same. In its crudest form, women are referred to as ‘genders’ or ‘comrade gender’.

        Women are still seen as responsible for gender issues. They often receive little support from the union. One educator pointed out that:

        ‘We expose comrades to the concept of gender through our education programmes and materials. But the stereotypes still remain, like reducing it to a women’s thing. Put women there, let them deal with it, give them space. It’s not an issue that’s affecting us.’

        In this way gender structures are marginalised and not provided with sufficient support and resources. It is therefore not surprising that they often fail. Women are not ‘a problem to be solved’. Women’s oppression is a societal issue, based on unequal gender power relations, and therefore a societal responsibility. It is the responsibility of the trade union as a whole to struggle for gender equality, not only women. At the same time, however, this does not mean that women should have to wait for men’s support in pushing the struggle forward.

      • “Gender = men + women”
      • Many people think that gender issues are being dealt with if structures are set up that have equal numbers of men and women. But a gender approach is about what happens in those structures and not about the numbers that attend.

        Man + woman + man + wpman does not equal gender equality...

        There is also a growing belief that by including men in gender structures, this will help change them and make them less resistant to gender issues. One shop steward expressed the hope that if men become more involved ‘maybe that stiff neck will turn.’

        Men’s involvement in gender struggles is important but the key concern should be the impact their involvement may have. Gender power relations play themselves out in subtle ways. For example, men may control these forums by unconsciously dominating discussions. This could discourage women’s participation.

        Participating in gender structures...

        Unions should ensure that the men that participate in gender structures are those that are likely to have most impact in taking forward gender struggles, rather than those that still need to become sensitive to gender issues!

      Downplaying the reality of women’s oppression

      A gender focus can sometimes divert us from the real issue – women’s oppression. Using words like ‘gender oppression’ can sometimes create confusion. Instead, we should be making clear and simple demands that the membership can understand and relate to. For example, talking about women’s leadership is more straightforward than ‘gender representivity’.

      Sometimes the concept of gender is even used to create the impression women and men are equally oppressed. As one former trade unionist argues:

      ‘If you’re forever saying gender relations, gender subordination, gender oppression, it’s possible that the actual reality that it’s women who are suffering the brunt of sexism gets lost and forgotten, especially by men. We need a much stronger emphasis on women’s oppression and the fact that gender relations is about women’s oppression. It’s not a case of both men and women suffering because of gender power relations, which is what some men in COSATU have promoted quite successfully. This downplays the reality and ultimately neutralises the overall strategic objective of gender struggles, which is the struggle against women’s oppression.’

      I'm suffering from gender power relations!

      Both men and women are affected by sexist stereotypes however.

      For example, there is an idea that women are nurturing caretakers which suggests that men cannot be loving and caring towards children.

      Or equally, that men can lose their life in war while women should be protected as the "weaker sex".

      Nevertheless, generally men are found in positions of power in society.

      This is in strong contrast with women’s general subordination.

      These power relations and differences will now be looked at more closely in the context of the union movement.

    5. Gender and power relations in trade unions
    6. The struggle for gender equality has a long way to go. Here we discuss attitudes and approaches to gender struggles, to women’s leadership, and men’s participation in gender structures.

      Attitudes and approaches to gender

      Many union members are not committed to making gender issues a priority. As one union educator says:

      ‘Some people don’t appreciate policies and treat gender issues with pessimism, saying "well it’s a very noble thing but of course it will take the next 500 years so we’d better get on with real union business in the meantime".’

      The slow progress to put into practice resolutions on gender shows that the trade union leadership are not doing enough to assist the work of the gender structures. In some unions, male comrades consciously resist attempts to have gender issues become part of the broader concerns of the unions.

      "During structural meetings we don’t discuss gender issues.

      Programmes are not meaningfully discussed and engaged as if we all have an interest in making it work. It’s either ‘agreed, agreed, let’s move on’ or else every detail is interrogated." (Regional office bearer)

      So, because of a lack of resources and political will on the part of male comrades, gender structures are often left with very little power and influence. Men also often feel threatened by gender equality:

      ‘The attitude of a lot of males is that gender is fine as long as it knows its place, but if my position as chair is challenged we’ll deal with this thing called gender. For male comrades, it’s now becoming harder to become leaders, so they start complaining and resisting.’ [union educator]

      In turn, women who have been elected leaders report that men who feel threatened by their power try and undermine their leadership abilities.

      ‘There’s a very real power struggle based on maintaining positions for men and questioning women’s capacity – "what do you know – you’re a woman, and I cannot be led by you." When it’s a woman there are all sorts of criteria. We get told we don’t have a clear political understanding and can’t give the organisation direction. We get asked how we will cope with the demands of leadership because we have children. After a woman has been elected, male comrades will resist her, either overtly or covertly. But they will resist her until they realise that she’s there to stay. Then they eventually have to grudgingly accept it.’ [office bearer]

      Women in leadership positions also have to fight to ensure that they do not end up doing ‘typical women’s work’. The following is an experience that a woman regional office bearer had. This is described by her gender co-ordinator:

      "She’s confident enough, she knows she can do it but she’s really fighting for her survival with other office bearers. Like during elections, other office bearers were deployed to companies and she was deployed to help the administrator in the office. She really had to fight the issue and she was right. She said to the other office bearers ‘But how will I learn? I was elected to be a leader not an administrator’." [Gender co-ordinator]

      With women’s empowerment becoming a serious issue in most organisations, men are starting to feel threatened. This has resulted in more and more people misusing the concept of gender.

      ‘The way I see it, gender is like a foil paper to cover everything and make it look nice. We use it so we’re not discriminating, because the men feel isolated and rejected. We say gender is for everyone.’[shopsteward]

      Male comrades’ may also become involved in gender structures for the wrong reasons. Sometimes this is not because of their commitment to gender equality but rather to ensure that their power in the union is not threatened.

      ‘Partly I think that men support the idea of gender structures because they can sit in on the forum... so it’s like ‘we won’t have them talking nonsense without us’. (educator)

      And indeed their participation has sometimes had the effect of continuing male domination:

      ‘The most positive impact of the concept of gender in the union movement is of men needing to take responsibility. But that has not been the outcome – the outcome has been men’s involvement as a mechanism of control and continued dominance.’

      Equality:  a clearly defined gender issue vs a gender issue getting out of hand...

      Most male union members are suspicious and fearful of gender equality. They see this as a means for women to ‘abuse power’, ‘threaten marriages and disrupt homes’, or upset cultural practices.

      Male comrades often express the view that ‘we must clearly define gender issues to make sure that this doesn’t get out of hand’.

      These views highlight why the need to be aware of the possible consequences of men participating in gender structures.


      Gender is useful as an analytical tool, but it can be misinterpreted and misused (like any other concept or perspective) to maintain the status quo. Gender relations are about women’s subordination and male domination. There is a need for a deeper understanding of these power relations and how they are kept in place in direct and indirect ways.

      Strategies need to be developed to ensure that men promote equality between the sexes. However, the participation of men in gender structures should be understood in its proper perspective. Many trade unionists, like all other members of society, still hold sexist views, no matter how progressive they are in other areas. For example, a shopsteward made the following statement in a discussion on gender issues: "My wife is subjected to me. She must do what I say – she must dance to my music". This thinking should not be underestimated when organising around gender issues.

    7. Barriers to women’s full participation in trade unions
    8. "We don’t just want to talk about gender issues we want to see women in front of us leading" T&GWU shopsteward


      Men still hold powerful positions in the economy, government and other areas of society despite the struggle for gender equality by the ANC and parliament. Women still experience oppression in different ways, like through domestic violence and abuse, rape and sexual harassment, poverty and workplace discrimination.

      According to UNICEF, more women die or get sick from gender violence than from malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. There is also a higher rate of HIV infection among women. This is another example of how women are dis-empowered in our society, since, despite the risks involved, they find it extremely difficult to insist that men use condoms in their relationships.

      Trade unions are part of society and are therefore not free from these attitudes and practices. Unions need to take up the challenge to transform the system they are part of.

      The sexual division of labour and unpaid labour

      Most women workers do two jobs: one is to earn a living and the other to run a home. This is known as the double shift. The sexual division of labour in the home and the workplace is the main reason why so few women participate in organisations.

      The capitalist system that relies on women’s unpaid reproductive labour is also central to keeping women from organising. If these women are unemployed, they are left isolated at home. If they are workers though, the situation does not change much. Their jobs are often undervalued, underpaid, unskilled and vulnerable. Organising in these situations is very difficult and could cost you your job.

      There is also a sexual division of labour in trade unions, where women are mostly administrators; whereas educators, negotiators, organisers and general secretaries are almost always men.

      Men at Home

      Often partners of women workers do not want them to attend union meetings. They refuse to look after the children when their wives/ partners go out and make the women feel guilty about leaving their children at home. Many times, men have also used violence to make sure that their wives come straight home after work and stay there.

      Even union members place restrictions on their partner’s trade union activities. For example, one shopsteward admitted that although his wife is an active shopsteward he does not allow her to go to workshops that involve sleeping over because he "knows what goes on there" and he "wants to protect her".

      If we go too far with this gender stuff, it will disrupt our homes...

      Many women that are in relationships with trade unionists spoke of how their partners speak about gender equality in meetings, but at home they expect them to cook, clean and take care of the children.

      A number of women that are active in the unions are not involved in permanent relationships or partnerships. In many cases their relationships broke down because of their trade union activism and because of their growing consciousness. Most of these women have children and are single parents, but this seemed to be less of a barrier to union activism (because of family support) than the restrictions placed on them by their partners.

      Union Activities and Meetings are Unsuitable for Women

      Union activities are arranged for people who have little or no home responsibilities. Meeting times are often unsuitable for women (late in the evenings, after a full-day’s work) as they have to find someone else to care for their children. Safety for women travelling at night with public transport is also a problem. Women also often find that the language used at meetings is difficult to relate to, and the issues that are discussed are not those that affect women most.

      Men’s Attitudes in the Unions

      Unions tend to be male-dominated. Women are not taken seriously and are often given boring and unrewarding jobs. They are also ignored and treated as if they are not there. While everyone claims to support gender issues, there is a general lack of sensitivity to women’s particular organisational needs.

      I'm still in charge!

      Many male representatives tend to ignore women’s concerns and these are often regarded as secondary to real union work. Issues that affect women most and men least are given a low priority during collective bargaining. Equally important is that men often do not see women as equals and many women face sexual harassment from their male comrades.

      Men also feel threatened by strong women who are assertive and are able to speak their mind. Men try to undermine these women because they feel that their power is challenged.

      Stereotypes about gender roles

      Union members (and broader society) often have fixed attitudes about what roles men and women should play.

      Union members often do not see women as "natural leaders"...

      In many cases members do not see women as 'natural leaders'. They use special criteria to exclude women from the main decision-making structures simply because they are women.. According to an office bearer:

      "Politics is put as the key criteria but even then its about who talks loudest and longest. They attach a label and say she won’t make it. Its really about not believing that a woman cannot be strong enough to lead, she can only be a treasurer, never a chair and never mind secretary. It’s like these positions are male in origin."

      As a result, women often do not develop confidence and are not supported and encouraged as worker leaders. Women are also not exposed to union processes and politics in the same way as men are because of their home responsibilities.

      Internalised oppression

      Often women believe that they are not natural leaders and this should be left to men. This is because they have accepted the lies and stereotypes about themselves as a group. This is referred to as internalised oppression and applies to women’s oppression as much as to any other oppression.

      Women are often divided, do not support each other, and have no confidence. Seldom do they put themselves forward for leadership positions. This is even the case in factories where there are majority women workers and they elect only male shopstewards. This is all part of the internalisation of women’s oppression. We should struggle against this oppression to promote the unity of women.

      One shopsteward talked of how taking a stand against abuse in her personal life empowered her to take leadership in the union:

      "After I left me husband it gave me strength to say that I can fight when things are not OK. I decided I want to be shopsteward, I want to be something. Most of the workers in our factory were women, and all the shopstewards were men. There were problems with the provident fund and the sick fund in our factory, and the shopstewards would undermine us and refuse to take our advice. So one day in a meeting under matters arising I said can we elect a woman, and I said I want to be a shopsteward. I wanted things to improve in our factory. Then they agreed and later another woman was elected."

      Sexual Harassment

      Many women do not want to participate in the unions because when they do male comrades treat them as "sex objects".

      "Sometimes women don’t realise their rights, they don’t understand that they don’t just have to accept it; but if they object, male comrades say ‘it’s not meant that way, take it in a comradely spirit’."

      In many cases women do not report cases of sexual harassment because they are usually blamed or not taken seriously. There is also a problem of ‘sexual politics’ in unions, where male leaders have affairs with many women. This causes tensions between the women and affects their participation. The following is an example of how men may abuse their power in unions:

      "An office bearer will fight for a female comrade to be a shopsteward and an REC delegate so that when there are meetings she will be there for his needs. But when the affair is over he won’t fight for time-off for her anymore."

      COSATU has adopted a Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment. However not all members know about this and it is not a living, working document. The document provides a good basis to make sexual harassment an organisational issue rather than a private matter.

      Questions for Discussion

      1. Why is it important to organise women into trade unions?

      2. What are some of the problems women face in your union? How is your union addressing these problems?

      3. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the gender structures in your union?

  3. Transforming gender relations:
    1. ‘A struggle within the struggle’
    2. In order to build truly democratic trade unions we need to ensure that gender struggles are taken up vigorously. Unionists should focus on taking up gender struggles in unions and the workplace.

      Socialism and Gender Equality

      Gender struggles and class struggles are bound together.

      Building socialism means building new men and women and transforming gender relations...

      We cannot be liberated from capitalist exploitation without women’s liberation. This view needs to be promoted in the unions. We also need to understand that even within the organisations of the working class there is sexism, and racism, and we need to fight against oppression in all its forms. This is part of the challenge facing COSATU in building a new socialist society. Building socialism means building new men and women and transforming gender relations.

      Building Activist Gender structures

      Gender structures should be built to co-ordinate gender struggles. A clear, simple and effective campaign on electing more women as shopstewards or on childcare facilities in the workplace could, for example, have an enormous impact if properly co-ordinated and integrated with other union struggles. As the September Commission argued, gender structures should be workplace engines for grassroots mobilisation, not bureaucratic structures.

      Political support and resources

      Unions do not provide resources or give adequate political support to gender structures so that they might work effectively. Gender co-ordinators are often administrators, who do not have status and influence in unions. Gender issues are also not at the core of union work.

      Gender co-ordinators and gender structures should be given the necessary resources to carry out campaigns and activities in unions. This requires a clear commitment of a proportion of the budget to gender activities. There should also be political support from trade union leadership to ensure that gender struggles are part of the trade union agenda.

      Progressive theory

      The concept of gender is misunderstood and misused by members in the union. There are also many different approaches to gender. All these need to be debated within the union so that a progressive theoretical perspective that reflects the organisational and workplace challenges facing women can be promoted. The main objective is to eliminate women’s oppression. Women must take the lead in developing and promoting this perspective.

      The leading role of women

      Gender power relations need to be clarified and identified. While it is important for men to take equal responsibility for eliminating sexism and supporting women leadership, the continued prevalence of male domination in trade unions should be remembered. As a contradiction to women subordination, women should play a leading role in the struggle for gender equality.

      The need for separate forums for women

      Some unions will not entertain the idea of separate forums for women. It has always been understood though that women may have to hold separate caucuses or meetings when the need arises. Establishing gender structures, which include women and men, implies an advanced consciousness and organisational commitment. This is still lacking in COSATU and its affiliates however. Therefore, there may be a need for women in unions to come together to strategise, assess progress and build unity and solidarity.

      Election of women as shopstewards and leaders

      Unionists who argue against applying quotas say that they don’t want tokenism. While it is important to guard against putting people into positions where they have no power, to argue that women should wait until they are "ready" to be in leadership positions is equivalent to racist arguments against affirmative action in the workplace.

      Women will remain on the fringes of the trade union if they do not have access to leadership...

      Women will remain on the fringes of the trade union if they do not have access to leadership. There is nothing like the actual experience of leadership in the ‘trade union school’, as one shopsteward put it:

      "Everything I know today is because of the union and because of the experience of being a shopsteward".

      Thus, unions need to develop concrete campaigns and strategies to elect women as shopstewards and leaders at all levels.

      Trade union work must allow for domestic responsibilities

      Unions need to negotiate time-off during working hours for meetings. If this is not possible, transport and childcare must be provided. In order for women to be active in trade unions, personal and domestic issues must be addressed. Men and women must share the responsibilities of childcare and domestic work.

      Taking up Gender issues in Collective Bargaining

      For women to participate in collective bargaining, the following is key: women should be included in bargaining teams; gender co-ordinators and structures should play a role in collective bargaining; women should be involved in collecting collective bargaining demands.

      Some of the key collective bargaining issues that relate to gender include:

      • Getting rid of the divisions between "male" and "female" work and taking up employment equity

      • Wages and promotion

      • Equal pay for equal work and work of equal value

      • Sexual harassment

      • Parental rights and childcare facilities

      • Violence against women

      • Health and Safety

      Developing creative organising methods for women workers

      Creative and participatory organising methods should be used to ensure that women participate fully in union meetings.

      Gender-sensitive toilets..

      For example, popular education methods, like plays and life stories, can be used to encourage women to participate.

      Organising women through community networks is another useful approach.

      Gender structures and unions as a whole need to tackle issues that affect women in their daily lives, including abusive relationships, domestic violence, and workplace discrimination and harassment.

      If this happens, it is more likely that you will see more women participating actively in the union and a truly democratic, worker controlled movement can be built.


  1. K Bhasin "What is Patriarchy?"

  2. ICFTU: 1996: Worlds Apart: Women and the Global Economy