2015 will mark 100 years since the first woman joined the RMT's forerunner, the NUR.
RMT women will use this anniversary to take pride in 100 years of fighting battles to break down barriers to equal treatment in our industry and our union.
But the anniversary is also a chance to reflect on how far we've come compared to where we want to be. We are still a long way from being equal. At work, we have to fight sexism. It's still too often assumed that we can't do our job as well as our male colleagues. One female engineer described how the annual interview to test her knowledge is an interrogation, while her male colleagues' interviews last five minutes!
Sexual harassment is still part of the workplace culture. Sometimes you can't go into your messroom or book on for duty without someone commenting on your arse or thighs. We heard recently that one bloke walked into a messroom and told his female colleague, “Get your tits out”. Of course, such comments are often a “joke” — or even a “compliment”.
But we'd rather have a bit of respect than a whole heap of flattery! We go into our place of work to do a job, on an equal basis to our male colleagues. We're not just here for decoration!
The sexism we still experience means it's necessary to have a union that stands up against discrimination and inequality. We need a union that will vigorously challenge sexism until it is eradicated.
So it is disheartening that, while women make up 12.5% of RMT's membership, we comprise 0% of RMT's leadership. RMT does not have even have one woman national officer or member of its Executive. Only one woman has completed a term on the RMT executive in the union's history, our comrade Janine Booth.
The all-male, all-white leadership is not representing women. As such, sexism, sexual harassment and sex discrimination in our industry is going largely unchallenged.
Women's issues sometimes feel ignored. We repeatedly ask to be included in RMT's monthly news magazine; we are told, “write your own articles and we will publish them”. Do the shipping section have to write their own material for RMT News? Why must we jump through more hoops than others to get our stories in print?
One of the saddest episodes in recent months was the publication on RMT's website of a poster advertising a boxing fundraising event for the RMT Widows and Orphans fund. It contained a cartoon image of a bikini-clad “ring girl”, with a caricature of a woman's body shape — huge boobs and a tiny waist. As well as perpetuating damaging false ideals for women's bodies, this image conveyed no respect for women.
Some women involved in Off the Rails wrote and moved a motion at RMT's women's conference that condemned the publication of such a sexist image on the RMT's website. Women spoke about how they felt angry, let down, and ashamed of our union. The motion passed after a lot of debate. Women in the RMT have always been strong. But now we're gaining confidence.
It was a big step to speak out openly about RMT's publication of the sexist poster; none of us wants to criticise the union in which we take a proud and active part. But we want to be proud of a union that represents us; that fights as hard to eradicate sexism as it does against every other workplace injustice.
So in the coming year, RMT women and supporters of Off the Rails will be campaigning to increase women's representation, e.g. we'll feed into RMT's review of its internal structures. We will also organise events to highlight issues women face, such as marking 25th November, the UN day of action to eradicate violence against women.
Fighting sexism is everyone's responsibility
Taking on sexist attitudes isn’t the job of women workers. All workers need to confront bigotry and prejudice in our workplaces. Off The Rails spoke to some male workers who’d challenged sexist behaviour at work.
“I walked into the messroom, noticed there was a picture of a topless woman on the wall. I thought ‘I am going to have to do something about this. What am I going to do?’ So I walked over, and took it off the wall, people looked at me, and I put it in the bin. Plenty of women had seen it… but had let it go. In the messroom there is a lot of banter, people have known each other decades, so there is an attitude of 'why mention it?', 'why make a big deal of it?' But that picture was just a blatant statement, I had to deal with it, so I pulled it down.”
“A woman customer came through my station wearing a short skirt and a low cut top, and my colleague started coming out with ‘they go out dressed like that and wonder why they get raped’-type stuff. It was just the two of us on the station, and I was able to confront him and argue with him about it. Other colleagues on the gateline make lewd, objectifying remarks when female passengers come through. In a way sexism about passengers is easier to deal with than about colleagues. In the messroom there is always the cover of 'it's just banter'. Someone talking about a passenger can't say, 'it's just banter' about someone they have never actually met.”