By Emma Maiden

A lot of stereotypes about Australia are pretty blokey. Mateship, ruggedness, barbecues, the list goes on.

So it’s perhaps no surprise then that as a nation with one of the strongest and proudest union traditions in the world, our stereotypes about unions are pretty blokey as well.

Picture the average union member and you’ve probably conjured up a heavy man in a blue singlet, who spends his day getting dirt on his knuckles or sparks in his beard.

Don’t get me wrong, union members who fit this bill certainly exist.

Yet like a lot of stereotypes, this one has failed to keep pace with reality and is now, categorically, wrong.

This year, for the first time in history, the average Australian union member is a woman.

Pick a random union member in Australia today, and you’re likely to come up with a teacher or a nurse or a community worker. And these workers are overwhelmingly female.

Recognising this reality in the current political climate is vital.

Because the erroneous stereotype of unions as being comprised of big, bad blokes is a huge part of the current attack on unions and unionism.

It suggests an old-fashioned view of a hyper-masculine Australia. The plan of those pushing it is for unionism to get bundled up with this image and then dismissed as outdated.

If unions are seen purely as the domain of rough-handed blokes, then they will hopefully be perceived as lacking relevance to the people who have the most to gain: women.

It is vital for women of the labour movement to firmly point out that the cartoonish archetype has about as much relevance to modern unions, as a fat, pinstripe-suited gent puffing a cigar has to the business community.

And Australian women need unions as much as ever before in 2014.

Female-dominated industries suffer from an outmoded set of norms that dictates that their pay doesn’t really matter as much. That “ladies”‘ jobs are a somehow supplementary to the real economy.

Through collective action, unions can change that.

A welcome development in recent years has been the introduction of more and more women into leadership positions in the union movement.

This is a significant shift. When I started working for unions 20 years ago, as a research officer for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, it was a very male environment.

That’s not to say that the majority of men involved weren’t sympathetic to change – but a male-dominated culture built up over decades doesn’t disappear as soon as few women start popping up.

The attitude I found as a young woman was not so much sexist as paternalistic, which was perhaps understandable.

But thankfully, as progressive organisations, most unions have recognised the need for change. They have, for example, been far swifter to share the wheel with women than the business community.

The current president of the ACTU, Ged Kearney, is a woman, as were her two predecessors, Sharan Burrow and Jennie George.

And a quick eye over the list of senior union officials will show the change too.

Women union members are increasingly stepping up their roles in the movement not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it has to be done.

Individual employees will never be in equal position of power to negotiate their rights one-on-one with an employer. So to justly improve wages, conditions and safety they will always need to take collective action.

Women need this even more than men, because the industries they dominate are starting from further behind the eight-ball – largely because they have not been as unionised in the past.

It’s an excellent thing that women are taking a truly equal role in unions – both in terms of membership and in leadership.

It’s high time our stereotypes caught up.

Source: Daily Life

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