AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Introduction: The Glass Ceiling
A glass ceiling exists in corporate America which effectively blocks qualified women and minorities from positions of power. As defined in a recent U.S. Department of Labor publication, the glass ceiling is "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management level positions."(1) This author argues that a similar "glass ceiling" exists for women who attempt to move into top leadership positions in their unions.
Martin points out that the labor force participation rate of women over the past decade has increased dramatically. They "have made significant gains at the entry level of employment and into the first levels of management. Yet, they have not experienced similar gains into the middle and senior levels of management, notwithstanding increased experience, credentials, overall qualifications, and a greater attachment to the workforce."(2) A parallel situation exists in the labor movement.
This past decade, large numbers of women have joined unions; they comprise approximately one-third of the total membership. Though they have moved into low and mid-level union positions, such as steward, local executive board member and trustee, access to top level local and international/national union positions is often closed due to reasons similar to those that lead women to "bump their heads" on the glass ceiling in the executive suite. And, as is the case with corporate women, union women are not only absent from the highest levels of the union structure, but are under-represented in those positions that provide a pipeline to the top.
Of the eighty-nine national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, only three have a female president. Furthermore, women hold only 9 percent of top elected positions. Apparently, they fare better in national union appointed or staff positions, where one-third of them are employed.(3) However, these "administrative" positions carry relatively little power compared to elected posts. And, in the majority of local unions, women serve as first-line stewards or sit on committees that hold no real power.(4)
Though the previous referenced studies found that women have moved into local union positions over the past decade, relatively few were top officers. The majority continue to face obstacles at the local level that effectively shut them out of the power structure:
. . . local positions provide the initial entry to the governing structure. The experience, political skills, confidence, and contacts acquired at lower levels make it easier for office-seekers to move through the hierarchy of intermediate and national level positions. Consequently, the barriers to participation faced by women at the local level have a subsequent impact on the proportions of women running for and attaining national office.(5)
Local leadership provides the informal training crucial to attaining elected office at the regional and national level.
Thus, in both corporations and unions, entry and middle level jobs serve as the training ground for moving into key positions. Unfortunately, women often don't have access to them. The glass ceiling study concluded that:
because . . . women did not have equal access to development practices and credential building experiences, many individuals in the pipeline were not considered qualified to advance beyond a certain level. These experiences included advanced education and career enhancing assignments, such as corporate committees, task forces, and special projects.(6)
Recognizing the importance of "learning the ropes" leading to holding power in an organization, an annual workshop has been held in the Chicago area with an emphasis on training local union women activists to pass the first hurdle on their way up the union hierarchy--holding local office.
The Polk Workshop and Survey
Since 1988, the University of Illinois, Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, has been awarded an annual grant earmarked for a three-day women's leadership training workshop (POLK Workshop). Funding, provided by the Regina V. Polk Scholarship Fund for Labor Leadership, covers costs of tuition, room and board for twenty-five Chicago area women who hold middle level leadership positions in their local unions.(7)
It has been suggested that women do not run for office because they lack skills about union structure or administration (such as conducting local meetings, presenting motions, and running for office).(8) Training participants in the skills needed to run for union office and to be effective leaders and administrators in their unions is the stated goal of the POLK Workshop. Though content varies each year, emphasis is placed on learning traditional union leadership skills (such as collective bargaining, union structure, labor law) along with training on self-assurance, motivation, and assertiveness.
In the winter of 1992, a survey was mailed to the 100 women who had attended the four POLK Workshops to date. A second, follow-up mailing was sent out a month later. Fifty-one responses were received, a response rate of 51 percent. Questions on the survey were patterned after one conducted at two southern weeklong schools for union women in 1982 and 1983 which compared participants' current level of union activism to changes in behavior related to union involvement approximately one and one-half years later.(9) The survey attempted to quantify the move, if any, into upper level union leadership positions of past participants after they attended the three-day program, and to identify barriers that women face when seeking to move into union leadership positions. In addition to demographic information, survey items included: comparison of leadership positions held when attending their first POLK Workshop to the present (Winter 1992), union participation activities, perceived barriers to leadership, skills training required to attain leadership goals, and benefits from attending the workshop.
Portrait of the Respondents
Almost half of the respondents (49 percent) were 41 to 50 years old, while 31 percent were in their 30s. Though the majority were single or divorced (57 percent), 39 percent were married. Of those who responded to having children (31), 42 percent of those children were between the ages of six and sixteen. It is interesting to note that 20 out of the 51 respondents (39 percent) did not have any children. Also, of those …