The rise of diversity and inclusion represents one of the most significant workplace success stories of recent decades. As well does the decline of unionisation.

Aided by various policies and initiatives, many companies have transformed demographics to acknowledge and reflect the makeup of modern society. In numerous instances, not least given the scale of the challenges involved, progress has been remarkable.

Naturally, some have fared more impressively than others. Some have apparently struggled to get to grips with an admittedly complex construct. Some, bolstered by evidence of incremental change, have allowed complacency to creep in. Others might even be accused of missing the point entirely.

Britain’s unions offer an interesting illustration. It’s ironic – not to mention profoundly sad – that organisations whose very essence lies in the notion of solidarity and cohesion should have found it so hard to move with the times. By examining their plight in more detail – and, crucially, by trying to understand where they may have gone wrong – we can perhaps learn a valuable lesson about how to embrace diversity and inclusion’s benefits to the best effect.

Dynamics and Desertion

 Unionisation has been in decline for years. In 1979, when the extent of its influence was shown, more than half of the UK’s workers were affiliated. In 2014, according to official figures, membership stood at 6.4 million. The diminution has been gradual in some ways and dramatic in others.

It’s right to say that various factors have planned to make life difficult for unions. The erosion of power can’t be traced solely to the strategy of Mrs Thatcher’s government, although these were pivotal. Competition, growing managerial influence, and macroeconomic considerations such as wage and unemployment levels have all played a part.

Yet organisational shortcomings have also contributed to the descending trajectory, with unions’ persistent inability to adjust to a shift in the male-female balance within the workplace proving markedly damaging. Our latest research, drawing on data from the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), casts fresh light on this issue.

Containing information representative of all UK businesses with five or more workers, the WERS is widely known as the most authoritative data source of its kind. We used the 2004 and 2011 surveys to investigate the relationship between gender mix in the workplace and gender mix in union membership.

Two findings, in particular, are worthy of note. Firstly, we found the average male employee was four percentage points more likely than the average female employee to have been a union member in the past. Secondly, we found the average male employee was 2.4 percentage points less likely than the average female employee to hold current union membership. In light of the inferences from these results, a key question inevitably arises: why have people been abandoning their unions?

I’m All Right, Jack – But What About Jill?

One likely explanation can be discerned from further analysis of the WERS data. We discovered an increase in the number of female employees resulted in a decrease in the same workforce’s union membership.

To put it another way: the mass desertion of men may represent a reaction to the influx of women. And to put it another way again: male union members traditional to the idea of “brotherhoods” might be less than delighted with what they see as the chance of rising “sisterhoods”. They would rather get out than stick around to see how the future might shape up.

Anyone who remembers I’m All Right, Jack, the 1959 film making fun of worker relations in the aftermath of World War Two, will be familiar with the standard trade unionist of yesteryear: a white, working-class, blue-collar, “male, pale and stale” man, as immortalised by Fred Kite, the character Peter Sellers shown in the movie. Yet 1959 was a long time ago, it has been women who have shown for most of Britain’s union membership.

The reality, then, is that women are nowadays important to the survival of unionisation. Of course, this doesn’t automatically imply that unions will soon do little for men. Unfortunately, this seems to be a situation some disappointed male members fear.

As a result, on balance, women’s greater presence in the labor market has destroyed unions instead of strengthening them. A positive has somehow been turned into a negative – one that continues to threaten unionisation’s broader relevance and well-being. With this tragedy, at the most basic level, we witness organisational failure to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Back to Basics

This isn’t intended as a union-bashing piece. Unions certainly haven’t stood still, and it’s important to recognise their many sincere and well-intentioned attempts to keep pace with the times – especially since the 1990s. But maybe the basic truth that has gone unremarked is that it’s nigh on impossible to accept, nurture and get the most out of diversity and inclusion unless everyone in an organisation commits to the cause.

As mentioned earlier, it’s both ironic and sad that such an ethos shows what solidarity and cohesion are all about. Once the bedrock of unionisation, these qualities are now in danger of being lost. Brotherhood, sisterhood – none of this can be done without all-around buy-in. This is the lesson of which elements of the union movement seem to have lost sight. It’s the lesson they and everyone else would do well to take to heart.

Dr Getinet Haile is an assistant professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School and the author of ‘Men, Women, and Unions’, published by the Institute for the Study of Labour, Bonn, and available here.

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