A Report from the Women’s Conference by Jodie and Alison
[Summary: Alison and Jodie attended the Women’s Conference in Bournemouth this year. There were several key themes that emerged throughout the three days, among which were; Young Women and the difficulties they face ; Sexual Harassment at work and how to challenge it ; Low Pay and the Gender Pay Gap ; Period Poverty ; Abortion Rights ; Domestic Violence. Obviously, some of these themes overlap with each other and some apply to men as well as women. However, most of Unison’s membership are women and our issues and needs come high in the unions list of priorities. Most of our branch membership is female as well, so please get in touch if you have any difficulties that we can help with. Remember too that if you would like to make an anonymous comment about any issue, you can post to us via the “union office in Aston Webb room WLG2”, or of course, you can always email Emma Green or Alison Dingle, [your Branch Women’s Officers].
Jodie and Alison headed off to Bournemouth after the AGM and, despite an eventful journey that included a few last-minute diversions; we arrived at the hotel in time for a relaxing nightcap. We took breakfast in a café on the seafront, meeting a lovely delegate from Suffolk on the next table, and made it to Bournemouth International Centre in plenty of time. The conference itself comprised positive and inspiring three days. I (Alison) was the formal delegate, which meant that I sat in an area with other unison members from the West Midland. My neighbours included Mandy and Caroline from the Care Workers of Birmingham City Council as well as delegates from Wolverhampton and Coventry. Jodie, as an observer/visitor, sat in a section at the back of the hall but took a few photos and videos of the proceedings.
If you’ve ever attended a Unison conference you’ll be familiar with the run of proceedings and this one followed the time-honoured format. Many of the motions were passed unanimously and there were only a few dissentions on some issues. The point of all this unanimous voting was for the National Women’s Committee, sitting in the front if you’ve seen the pictures, to have a clear mandate to put forward policies to the National Unison Committee. It was genuinely national too; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all represented by speakers and committee members. Motions were presented, and several member spoke in favour of why they should pass before the delegates gave a show of hands. I’ve grouped them together for brevity and concision.
Younger Women are currently underrepresented in the union and they face a number of specific problems. Student debt affects young women to a greater extent than men; if they take career breaks through maternity their debt accumulates over a long period of time which means they are paying back for longer and with more interest. This is even before the Gender Pay Gap is taken into consideration! Younger women can often feel a greater impact of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Since the advent of online dating it is not uncommon for women (and men) to find themselves on a date with someone that doesn’t exactly resemble their profile photos, or that perhaps after a couple of drinks isn’t quite as charming as they made out to be. When dates go wrong you can easily find yourself thinking, “I want to go home…but don’t want to make a scene or cause offence…how do I get out of this?” This is where the Ask for Angela campaign comes in. Those that want to get away can approach the bar in participating venues, ask if Angela is working, and a member of staff will politely suggest you say “hi in the office” then helps you call a cab & leave through a back door. Whilst this is not a perfect idea, online publicity and posters in the toilets or bar can mean that perpetrators might be aware of the campaign, you might also find yourself speaking to member of staff that is not aware of the scheme. However, it is a great starting point if you do find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation and you can’t see an easy way out. Delegates also pointed out that this could also be used for people in established relationships noticing a potentially violent situation on the horizon.
Sexual Harassment at work
All ages of women told of horrible experiences where women felt obliged to accept intimidation and humiliation to keep their jobs. Some of their stories were decades old, but these women had remained angry with the injustice and abuse of power. We agreed that preventing abuse by demanding fit-for-purpose laws to protect our hard-won rights was essential. As a branch we would say that if you’re a young woman reading this UNISON is a Women’s union: YOUR issues are OUR issues!
Obviously low pay and benefits took up a large amount of the debating time. I was lucky enough to sit near to the Birmingham Care workers who are currently striking because of cuts to their pay and conditions. Dave Prentis addressed the conference and paid credit to them and deservedly so, I’ve got to say, they were amazing! When they spoke it was as ordinary women who have decided that they can’t accept the new pay and conditions imposed upon them. (I will confess here that I am not neutral; the carers who looked after my own mum in her final few months made such a wonderful difference to her and our lives). Universal Credit came up as another theme with many negative aspects for women.
There was also a lot of frank discussion on period dignity and the menopause. Towels and tampons are an expense that women alone face. They are also taxed as “luxury items”, a status that isn’t afforded to products typically purchased by men such as condoms, razors or shaving foam. The majority of low paid workers are women and not having adequate sanitaryware undermines womens’ confidence and makes us feel vulnerable. It can also have a detrimental effect on the ability of female students to attend lectures and the children of our members to attend school. In our report to the University last year the committee, alongside other the other unions, called for towels and tampons to be made available in the campus toilets. It is possible to get free condoms, lubricant, STI tests and emergency contraception, so why can’t we have free sanitary products?
Some women do not “sail through” their periods and the conference called for greater openness in dealing with women’s sickness in relation to their menstrual cycle. Older women discussed the hormonal chaos of the menopause, and how every aspect of women’s lives are affected by this time of life. Coping with the menopause often coincides with looking after teenage children as well as caring for aging parents, and the delegates’ contributions made reference to the difference between women’s and men’s lives.
This motion was brought into focus by our members in Northern Ireland who, since the Republic of Ireland has repealed its own opposition to abortion, have found themselves going to the South in order to access safe abortions. Jodie and I discussed this on the journey to conference and decided in advance to abstain from this vote, knowing that the motion would pass. I agree with abortion rights, but I also know some members feel strongly against this and I would like to know many more members’ thoughts on the matter. I invite you to email me with your opinions, for or against. Currently women who need to terminate a pregnancy do so under certain aspects of criminal law, the conference voted to decriminalise abortion and place abortion provision under medical regulation. Another policy called for the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics. Anti-abortion protesters often picket clinics with the intention of preventing women from entering and causing distress. The motion called for these protests to be a minimum of 100 meters from the entrances.
Several discussions took place on the topic of domestic violence and its long-term physical and emotional scars. As you may know our branch is currently pushing for the university to adopt a formal policy on domestic violence and stalking so these debates were timely. One motion discussed violence and football; during last year’s World Cup police reported a spike in incidents whenever England played, whether they won or lost. Statistics on the relationship between football and violence are numerous. However, one speaker brought up the question of how of gambling has an impact upon men’s aggression, and given that betting is ubiquitous in football, its impact on domestic violence warrants, I believe, further thought.
Maternity Rights and Stillbirth
One of the motions that has particularly stuck with me (Jodie) was the motion on the promotion of maternity rights to parents that have suffered stillbirth. This is a difficult topic to say the least and peaks in support of this motion bravely stood up to recount their own personal experiences or those of relatives. One thing that remained clear is that this is not something that anyone should be expected to “bounce back” from and more needs to be done on a systemic level to create awareness on the rights of grieving parents to take their time and recover together. Both mothers and fathers are entitled to their full maternity and paternity rights in the event of a stillbirth or death of a child shortly after birth. Yet during this discussion, we heard harrowing stories of women rushing to find a new job within days of burying their child, for fear of facing their colleagues. We were also told of delegates that had panicked over an expected loss of income, expecting that they won’t be intuited to maternity as they do not have a child to care for. Dealing with these worries and stresses whilst grieving for your child is not something anyone should face and this is why it is particularly important that both parents are aware of their maternity rights.