Could more women leaders make a difference to industrial relations, asks Richard Cree
Talks to resolve the postal dispute rumble on and a new round of strikes may yet be avoided. But regardless of the outcome, pessimists point to this dispute and to others, involving firemen in south Yorkshire and bin men in Leeds, as signs that we are heading for another winter of discontent. The recession, together with an unpopular and weak Labour government-not to mention the potentially disastrous impact of a swine flu pandemic-add up to fertile ground for industrial unrest.
With the exception of the perennially strike-affected British Airways, still dealing with its public sector roots and now bracing itself for another dispute, most of this action will be in the public sector. While the private sector has experienced 18 months of pain, with pay freezes and redundancies the norm, the public sector has been largely unaffected. Government finances dictate this will now have to change. Major spending cuts in the public sector are inevitable. And while tackling pay and working practices is tough enough, at some point the even thornier issue of public sector pensions will have to be addressed.
All of this makes a winter of industrial action a real possibility. If so, we can expect union leaders and senior managers to appear on news bulletins taking turns to attack one another's unreasonable stance and defend their own. Almost all of these exchanges will involve ritualistic, aggressive point-scoring. And almost all the participants will be men. But would industrial relations be different if more directors and more union leaders were women?
According to the list of unions affiliated to the TUC, 14 of 60 are led by women. At close to 25 per cent, this sounds impressive. But the majority of these are very small, specialist unions, often representing workers within the health service. Of the 6.5 million workers represented by a union, under 10 per cent are in unions led by women. This equates to the number of female directors on UK boards. This is partly historical and also logical. If the workers in a profession are mostly male, it makes sense that most union reps and ultimately the union leader will also be. But putting these explanations to one side, would more women make a difference to industrial relations?
According to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland's book Women Mean Business, women tend to be more "pragmatic and participative". They list a number of things that women tend to be more adept at than their male colleagues. These include identifying key stakeholders and their interests; approaching enemies and seeking common ground; building coalitions on shared ideas; networking and developing the number of people they know; lobbying for their proposals with senior management and external bodies; and packaging and communicating progress and achievements. All of which sound like pretty useful skills when it comes to avoiding or resolving an industrial dispute.
Of course, there are major structural and organisational issues at the heart of many of these disputes and it is dangerous to make generalisations based on gender. But should this winter descend into chaos, it may be worth looking again at what needs to be done to make the senior positions in all organisations-employers and unions alike-more appealing to women.