SCOTLAND’S trade union movement is headed by women for the first time in its history.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), which has 40 affiliated unions representing 540,000 workers, named Roz Foyer its first female general secretary in February. Now she’s joined by Mary Senior, who earlier this week became the body’s new president.

Today Staffordshire-born Senior, who is also the University and College Union’s (UCU) Scotland official, reveals how a pioneering Scottish MP inspired her to take a stand.

Jennie Lee, originally from Fife town Lochgelly, was the Labour MP for Senior’s home town of Cannock for 25 years. Before standing there, the trained teacher had been the youngest female member of parliament when she was returned at a North Lanarkshire by-election in 1929, later marrying NHS founder Aneurin Bevan and laying the foundations for the Open University, which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Senior’s parents campaigned for Lee, whose presence in Cannock helped shape young Senior’s life. “I’ve always had strong women in my life – my mother, my grandmother, a number of my great aunts – and Jennie Lee was our MP.

“That showed that women could do these things. I’d never felt that there were barriers when I was growing up.

“It was when I got to the workplace that we were presented with barriers. That was quite a shock to me as a young woman.”

Senior is the first UCU nominee to become STUC president and comes to the role after 20 years in the trade union movement.

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She came to Scotland for work in the mid-90s and has since held roles with the GMB and Unison unions. The West Dunbartonshire woman says she is “heartened” by the positive messages she’s received on her presidency, some of which have come from people normally “at the other side of the table” – university principals.

“They can see the value in UCU holding this important position in the trade union movement,” she says. “Our sector has been very much in the public eye through the pandemic.”

That’s down to fears for the health and safety of staff and students, financial pressures, the move to online courses, redundancies and more. Senior, who is campaigning for a “people’s recovery” believes the Covid crisis has proven just how vital unions are in wider society, especially for women and families. “We are seeing women on the frontline in the pandemic, particularly in care homes, in the NHS and schools. When lockdown hit and people had to work from home where they could, women not only had to juggle emails, they were also homeschooling their children and dealing with all of the domestic responsibilities.

“In my sector the evidence is that it didn’t affect the output of male researchers, but for women the experience was incredibly different. You had to wonder if we were going back to the 1950s. The mental health challenges that we are facing are another worrying output of the pandemic.

“The pandemic gives us an opportunity to build back better,” she went on, “but I worry when I hear Boris Johnson saying that when the Conservatives were the architects of austerity. It can’t just be a soundbite, we have to really reflect on the way the economy and society work, or don’t work.”