As Labour Day approaches, close your eyes and picture the typical union member in Canada. If you conjured an image of a man wearing a hard hat or working in a factory, you missed the mark.

The typical union member in Canada is actually a woman who works in the public sector. She may be a teacher, a nurse, an office clerk at city hall or a mail carrier. All of these jobs are more likely to be unionized than those in the majority-male manufacturing, warehousing or construction sectors. In fact, Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey data reveals that, as of 2019, women made up 53.1 per cent of union members. That’s up from 45.8 per cent in 1998 and 29 per cent in 1978.

There’s no question that women benefit from unionization. Being unionized boosts women’s wages more than it does men’s, when both are compared to their non-union counterparts.

Unionized women also experience a much smaller gender pay gap when compared to unionized men. In other words, unions help women overcome the effects of gender discrimination in the workplace. This “union advantage” is even greater for women who are affected by other forms of systemic discrimination.

The glass ceiling is an often-used metaphor that refers to an invisible barrier that prevents women and other equity-seeking groups, regardless of their skills or qualifications, from advancing into leadership positions within organizations. While in theory, nothing prevents a woman from being elected to a top leadership position, the glass ceiling represents the subtle ways that organizations devalue and doubt women’s leadership skills based on gender stereotypes.

Despite these barriers, women have periodically risen to top leadership positions within individual public sector unions or labour federations over the years. But securing positions of leadership within unions has been a long, hard-fought struggle for women workers.

And even while being severely under-represented in positions of leadership, union women have undeniably had an impact. Their activism paved the way for the labour movement to campaign for and secure pay equity, employer-paid daycare, paid maternity leave and rules banning gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

Later this year, two women — Bea Bruske of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Linda Silas of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions — are expected to compete for the presidency of the Canadian Labour Congress. It will be the first election in the history of the congress where both major contenders are women.

So many of the issues we now face because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting disruptions in work, home and school are borne by women. Racialized and poor women are even more at risk of COVID-19 exposure because of the service and care work they do and the lack of choices they have to engage in social distancing.Why does gender representation matter now, more than ever?

This content was originally published here.