Now more than ever it is important for female activists to stand up and be counted. Women – who account for more than 70% of probation staff – have been disproportionately affected by Transforming Rehabilitation. As further reforms loom and campaigns for harmonised maternity leave and issues around menopause in the workplace gather momentum; NQ speaks to Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah about overcoming obstacles, solidarity and making sure voices are amplified during these uncertain times.
For some people, activism is as natural to them as breathing.Pushing for equality, stamping out bigotry and defending workers’ rights are just as instinctual.
Others, however, do not feel as compelled to speak up on the issues that directly affect them or others around them. But as Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah warns: “That radio silence is an ugly thing.”
“You only need to look at what’s happening now in the world. It seems ever so fragile, and for me if we don’t do anything about things that affect other people and not necessarily ourselves, we will feel it way down the line,” she adds.
Phyllis has been a long time campaigner and proud advocate for race and gender equality, LGBT rights and the trade union movement. “I know it sounds corny and cliché,” she says, “but I just want the world to be a better place.”
Cliché or not, Phyllis’s work has not gone unrecognised. Mentioned in every UK list honouring influential LGBT people, she also made the headlines in 2016 for turning down an MBE on a point of principle.
While accolades might be enough for some, Phyllis is driven by a deeper motivation: “I don’t want a younger version of me to have to go through some of the stuff I had to,” she says.
Recalling a time when she was around 11-years-old and told to hide in a shop doorway by a passer-by because the National Front were marching through Enfield Town, Phyllis says: “I will never forget that old woman telling me ‘they don’t like your sort’’’.
As she got older “her sort” came to mean more than just the colour of her skin, and like many women, there were more barriers that would have to be overcome.
“I think when you look at intersectionality and intersectional matters, it will show you that you can be discriminated against, blocked or stifled just for being a woman, just for being LGBT, just for being black or just for being disabled. I happen to be all four, and at one stage, I was younger and that was also barrier,” she explains.
But Phyllis is pragmatic in her approach to these so-called barriers and says: “It’s other people who create barriers, but it’s our job to break through them, go over them, go under them or go round them.”
Considering how instrumental women have been in the trade union movement, gender specific issues often give way to those that affect “the all” instead. “Sometimes we need to look at the root causes of why we are not pushing forward as much on a particular agenda. There is a history of women being silenced,” Phyllis explains.
Phyllis draws correlations between some Napo members being civil servants and unable to speak freely on some issues, and a time in the 70s where women had to leave the civil service once they married.
“When you pull those things together, it might mean we haven’t had as much opportunity to amplify our voices, be decision makers and to do things that men take as a given,” she says.
For this reason, Phyllis sees male members as really important allies. “It’s not just women who should be shouting about these things from the rooftops. We should be ensuring that the men in our trade union movement understand and realise that just because it is not their issue it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be their struggle. An injury to one is an injury to all.”
With this in mind, just how good are trade unions at representing the wider issues faced by all sections of their membership?
“In the wider trade union movement, I think there is a lot to be said about visibility and representation of women, of young people, black people, LGBT people and people with disabilities throughout our structures,” she says adding: “It shouldn’t be that equality is an afterthought tagged on to the end just to tick a box, as we then become as bad as the employer.”
Of all the obstacles to women becoming more active in union activity, high workloads are perhaps the most pressing. “The moment you feel inundated with work, you are unable to take forward anything else,” says Phyllis, adding that performance management puts people under “undue pressure to deliver on targets”.
Phyllis commends Napo for launching its workload campaign and says: “Where I welcome Napo’s workload campaign is the conversation about mental health. The moment your workload is excessive, you are undoubtedly going to feel stress and stress is one of the factors that lead to ill mental health.
“I think it’s a sad state of affairs that managers are not well equipped to support their staff, and they place undue pressure on them because they are not thinking about their wellbeing, they are just thinking about delivering.”
Looking to the rest of the year Phyllis has high hopes for the trade union movement. “I would like to see the wider trade union movement tackle underrepresentation.
“I would also like to see them get stronger in their ability to be able to negotiate at government level so members’ terms are not eroded.
“Unions should be working more cohesively and closer on matters that intersect their memberships.
“I would also like to see our trade union movement stand up very strong and very loudly with amplified voices against the attacks that are happening at home and abroad regarding migrants and refugees and to speak up against islamophobia.
“Lastly, I would like our trade union movement to be about equality and equity and not just say it.”
Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah is a co-founder, trustee and executive director of UK Black Pride. Phyllis sits on the TUC race relations committee and is currently trustee of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights charity, Stonewall.