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Comparative research is always a challenge. However, it is also necessary if we are to develop robust interpretations and encompassing theories (Hyman, 2001), with a view of displaying both similarities and differences, as well as identifying ‘best practice’ (Ledwith and Hansen, 2013). The two studies presented in this book approach international comparison in different ways. The first, on women’s underrepresentation in trade unions, uses a ‘career’ methodology to analyse the variation in ‘inequality regimes’ (Ackers, 2006) across two countries. The second proposes a socio-historical analysis of legal mobilizations (Lehoucq and Taylor, 2020) in favour of equal pay in the UK as an example to draw useful lessons for other national contexts (notably France) on the effectiveness of mobilizing the courts as a union repertoire of action. In doing so, both studies offer different contributions to (comparative) research in industrial relations.

The first contribution of this research is methodological. Our aim in this comparative endeavour was to overcome some of the difficulties encountered in comparative research on industrial relations (Hyman, 2001), and to avoid a deterministic and overarching perspective investigating institutions and structures (for example, industrial relations systems, gender equality regimes) at the expense of social processes (for example, social construction of gender inequalities). At the same time, while previous research has shown that there is a universalism in the way women are treated in the workplace and a strong resilience of the gendered order over time (Kirton and Healy, 2013a), scholars have argued for contextually and/or historically grounded analysis as a means of understanding the structure and dynamics of ‘inequality regimes’ (Acker, 2006).

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Given how different unions are both within a given country and between countries there is a surprising degree of convergence in studies on the underrepresentation of women in the trade union movement. Unions differ in their size, the characteristics of their members, their rates of feminization, and above all in their identity and the scope of their equality policy. So, how can we understand the processes that maintain gender inequalities within unions? What are the policies and measures that facilitate the feminization of different union structures, from the workplace branch to national decision-making bodies?

This chapter intends to answer these questions through the analysis of the ‘careers’ (Guillaume and Pochic, 2021) of men and women activists, using them to decode the institutional processes that produce and legitimate inequalities, but also the conditions that facilitate the promotion of women and their interests. Using what Rosemary Crompton calls ‘biographical matching and comparative analysis’ (Crompton, 2001), this research has compared the careers of many unionists, both men and women, in four unions, in France and the UK. As Muriel Darmon emphasizes, the concept of ‘career’ is particularly useful for the analysis of trajectories inscribed in ‘areas where it is not already used as an indigenous term or idea’ (Darmon, 2008). Indeed, this term is not only lacking but in fact actively rejected from the unionists’ vocabulary, probably because it is usually associated with paid work and part of union work is unpaid and voluntary.

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In recent years there has been significant improvement in the feminization of unions in both Great Britain and in France. Today, union membership generally reflects the presence of women in the labour market in these countries. However, this descriptive representation of women is not the result of a mechanical adjustment to the transformations of the labour market or the development of an ‘egalitarian conscience’ among unions. Large numbers of women moved into paid work between 1970 and 1990, but their union representation improved only in the 2000s (Boston, 2015; Kirton, 2015), thanks to the implementation of targeted recruitment strategies in highly feminized sectors and voluntarist equality policies within unions. In the UK, around 43% of women were in paid employment in 1987, but they represented only 29% of union members. Union representation increased over time, reaching 39% in 2000 and 48% in 2012. Today, the unionization of women has outpaced that of men (26.2% compared to 20.7% in 2018), like in other countries (Cooper, 2012; Milkman, 2016; Gavin et al, 2020). However, this feminization is variable between unions, depending on their size and sector (Kirton, 2015). In France, the rate of unionization is lower among women than men (10% compared to 12%) but, according to the most recent data, some unions, like the CFDT, have levels of women members that on average reflect the proportion of women employees. Other organizations in more traditionally male-dominated industrial sectors, like the CGT, or in occupations that are still male dominated (CFE-CGC), have lower levels of women members (see Table 1.2).

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The feminization of unions is underway. It is selective and incomplete, but it is progressing. Many women union leaders describe themselves as feminists and actively defend internal equality policy. But what impact does this feminization have on the way women’s interests are represented in the workplace? Is having women unionists defending ‘women’s rights’ enough to actually advance gender equality? Research in political science has long considered that a ‘politics of presence’ (Phillips, 1995) was necessary to ensure that the concerns of women (as a group) were put on the political agenda. However, the supposed connection between descriptive and substantive representation (Pitkin, 1977) has been the subject of an extensive literature outlining the pitfalls of such an assumption (Campbell et al, 2010). Critics have pointed out the risk of naturalizing and unifying the definition of what constitutes ‘women’s interests’ as such. Scholars have also drawn attention to the distinct social characteristics of women in elected positions, their uneven propensity to formulate and represent the interests of (other) women, and the variations of this representation, depending on the institutional context (Mackay, 2010). Fiona Mackay (2010) contended that the relationship between descriptive representation of women and a better representation of women’s interests and preferences is not straightforward but would be better defined as ‘probabilistic’, complex, institutionally constructed, and variable, depending on the problem treated and the political context.

Substantive representation has therefore progressively become a research question, investigating a larger number of representatives acting in the name of women and looking into ‘critical actors’ (Childs and Krook, 2009).

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Gender Equality Policies in French and British Trade Unions

This book explores the representation of women and their interests in the world of work across four trade unions in France and the UK.

Drawing on case studies of the careers of 100 activists and a longitudinal study of the trade unions' struggle for equal pay in the UK, it unveils the social, organizational, and political conditions that contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities or, on the contrary, allow the promotion of equality.

Guillaume’s nuanced evaluation is a call to redefine the role of trade unions in the delivering of gender equality, contributing to broader debates on the effectiveness of equality policies and the enforcement of equality legislation.

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In comparison with other academic fields, the underrepresentation of women and their interests in and by unions has attracted attention only relatively recently in France, with the exception of pioneering work on women’s strikes in sociology (Maruani, 1979; Borzeix and Maruani, 1982; Kergoat, 1982) and history (Guilbert, 1966; Perrot, 1974; Zylberberg-Hocquard, 1978; Auzias and Houel, 1982). Research in employment relations has long been criticized for its ‘classist obsession’ (Kirton and Healy, 2008), its institutional bias (Wajcman, 2000), and its lack of consideration for the gendered dynamics that characterize union representation and the labour market. Yet, as early as the 1980s, Sylvia Walby (1986) argued that trade unions were one of the three patriarchal institutions that intervene in gender relations in paid employment, the others being the state and employers. In both France and Great Britain an overview of the literature shows the clearly marginal place of women in the ‘classical’ study of industrial relations; when they are not literally left out of the analysis, women feature only as a descriptive variable, or are studied in relation to specific issues like equal pay, workplace discrimination, and sometimes organizing.

In the UK in the 1980s, work by socialist-feminist researchers on working-class women’s work led to a condemnation of the unions’ hostile attitude to women in traditional industries and raised the question of the underrepresentation of women and their interests more generally (Pollert, 1981; Glucksmann, 1982; Cockburn, 1983).

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