Women's rights

The cost of motherhood – even without the apple pie – is 17% lower pay than male colleagues and being disproportionately singled out for redundancy as employers cut back. So what is the NUJ doing to fight for women’s rights at work?

Lena Calvert, the union’s equality officer addressed this and more at a combined meeting of the London Magazine Branch and Book Branch in January. Despite having the same rights as men – arguably more because of the laws on maternity leave – women are still discriminated against at work and far more likely to suffer from bullying and harassment. Employers’ organisations openly say that the possibility of a woman becoming pregnant is a deterrent to employing or promoting her, said Lena.

All this gets much worse in a recession. Women are talking the brunt of downsizing on top of: more often living in poverty; having less assets; and more often suffering violence (which financial stress exacerbates).

Yet the media in which so many women now work dismally fail to represent this reality. Lena presented research by the Fawcett Society in which a random 500 magazine covers in a branch of WH Smith were analysed. Just under 300 showed idealised pictures of people (typically looking attractive) – 84% of them women; 230 covers showed what people did (typically work related) – but only 15% of them women. So plenty of women in evidence, but overwhelmingly presented as passive or consumers.

Lena argued that the problem starts with editorial control. See the Fawcett Society’s detailed survey of senior editorial positions here. She then recounted a member’s gruesome account of working in one features department. Articles about women who had endured or triumphed over tough times are regularly rejected by the (male) section editor because he is “fed up of mingers”. Staff who want to get these stories published have had to persuade the women concerned to have a makeover to pass their boss’s ugliness test. We’d be interested to hear from any members who have had similar experiences.

Lena ended on the NUJ’s own record and conduct. From a high point of 43% two years ago the proportion of women members has fallen to about 39%. However, the proportion of  women on the National Executive Committee is a pale reflection of this: of 28 seats two-and-a-half are held by four job-sharing women. To start tackling this disparity some union bodies have proposed gender-balanced nominations lists for all union committees. That does not mean that 50% of the people elected have to be  women; it means that there should be a conscious effort to ask women to stand as candidates.

The NUJ’s national conference at the end of last year rejected the proposal at the end of an acrimonious debate.

The debate at our joint magazine and book members’ meeting was vigorous – but unanimously opposed to the national decision. As this was not a formal meeting of the London Magazine Branch we couldn’t table or vote on a motion, but there was a strong feeling that the branch should start using gender-balanced lists when the next round of nominations to union bodies is required.

A motion to this effect was passed by the February branch meeting; see the text of Motion 1 here.

Join the discussion on the branch’s online forum here.

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