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Women's History Month 2021

Interview with Paula Tegg

March is Women’s history month and we thought we would take this opportunity to showcase role models that inspire us.

We know it's important for us to have role models to inspire, educate and encourage those that may not ordinarily wish to be seen in the spotlight. Accord is an inclusive union and represents members from diverse backgrounds, but we know we need to do more to continue to build our capabilities for the future. We, therefore, thought we should highlight one of only a few women Assistant General Secretaries in the union movement. Our very own, Paula Tegg. With this in mind, Lucy Maller (Principal Executive Council) caught up with Paula and asked her a few questions….

Tell us a bit about your career to date...

I went to college to do my A levels. As it was a technical college, I also had to do a technical course alongside, so I chose to learn shorthand and typing. It was seen as a bit of a 'dummies' course at the time, but the skills I learnt there have been invaluable throughout my career.

I started work at Sainsbury's in their Personnel department (remember those!). Part of my role was taking shorthand notes in disciplinary meetings. It was heart breaking to see how often young, low paid, low skilled workers were being treated.

It was during my time there that I realised I couldn’t be on that side of the table for the rest of my working life. So, I left Sainsburys and went to work as an Executive Assistant for a trade union – the Communication Managers Association (CMA) which represented Post Office and BT supervisory grades.

To help me get on, I studied in the evenings for a post graduate degree in people management (now known as CIPD). Whilst in my job, I worked hard, threw myself into the role and built a good reputation with the union’s members, reps and officers.

I was lucky. I worked with incredibly supportive and forward-thinking men, in a very male dominated world. My boss, Terry Deegan, the Deputy General Secretary, taught me so much. Skills that I still use in my job today. During my time at the CMA, I was seconded for a couple of years to work with Graham Alan MP dealing with his post bag of correspondence from constituents – everything from barking dogs to cries for help with social benefit claims. Through my work in Graham’s office I built a new network of contacts and got a broader understanding of how politics and the world of work are inextricably linked. Graham was really supportive too. He wanted me to get on.

After 10 years at the CMA, I heard about a vacancy for an Executive Assistant at another union whose Headquarters was just down the road. That was the then HBSSA (Halifax Building Society Staff Association). I was interviewed by the General Secretary, Ged Nichols, and got the job. That was 26 years ago now.

Coming into what is now Accord was a complete culture shock. My network of support that I’d built up over the years was no longer there and I did feel out of my depth at first. But the challenge was exciting and I worked hard to be my best at all times.

A few years down the line my role evolved from supporting joint meetings, research, communications and strategy to include representing individual members. Some time later, as a result of an internal restructure, I took on a more managerial role including responsibility for staff as well as the operational aspects involved in running the union. Through the restructure, I was blueprinted into the Assistant General Secretary role.

It sounds like it was important for you to have a mentor - someone to give you a push in the right direction. What’s the best advice you’ve been given throughout your career?

This is going to sound like a cliché, but I’d say patience and kindness are key strengths, as is listening. People often just want to feel heard even if you can't fix their problem. Overall, to have common decency for each other. Sometimes it's necessary to disagree with someone but you can do this without being disrespectful.

That's great advice! What do you think your greatest successes for women members has been?

I’ve had quite a few over the years, not least the campaign I led for part time workers’ pension rights. But I’d say the woman I’ve supported and I’m enormously proud of is Louise Gray, our Finance Officer. Lou was working in the Reading Halifax branch - not too far from our HQ office. At the time she was just 17, full of potential, but unhappy with the sales culture that was evolving and was thinking of leaving. We needed some admin support in the office so I invited Lou to come along for an interview. It was clear to me from the start that she wasn’t a sales type – but that she had a sharp analytical brain and an eye for numbers. She also had an empathy about her that I liked. I could see bags of potential so snapped her up. Since then, the union has supported her through her accountancy exams and she’s our qualified Finance Officer - keeping our money and books right (among many other things!) I think she would say I was instrumental in her development and I’m glad to have been able to support her in finding her potential.

Sometimes a little push in the right direction is all we need. With this in mind, who do you draw inspiration from?

Frances O’Grady, the first woman to become General Secretary of the TUC, certainly inspires me. I love her outlook and the way she communicates. She’s very down to earth and speaks my language. Also Sally Hunt, the former General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU). Sally worked for this union in its infancy and, after she’d left, I worked closely with her through Accord’s involvement in the Financial Services Staff Federation (FSSF). She’s another one who speaks my language. She says things how they are, is polite, persuasive, and just has a really wonderful way about her.

Have you ever come up against barriers being a woman in what remains a male dominated role?

Not in this union, no. But I’m made of sterner stuff and don’t give up easily. I’ve never accepted that I’m less important, worthy or capable than a man.

So, whilst I've not personally faced any barriers in Accord, that may not be the case for everyone. I do think we need to do more to develop our reps and recognise their talent. After all, they’re the union’s officers of the future.

Absolutely! As a final thought, what words of encouragement would you offer to women in Accord to take that next step and become more active in the union?

Becoming a rep is a great start - it's where our General Secretary started after all! Experience gained as a rep is invaluable – you'll get to know what the union does, how we work whilst developing your skills and confidence. From there, we've got structures in place such as our Area Reps in the branch network who are getting more involved and taking on more responsibility; or the Principal Executive Council (PEC) which oversees the running of the union. A lot of our staff have started off this way including, as I’ve already said, Ged himself. As a union we’ve got more women members than men, so there should be no barriers to getting on.

The TUC offers leadership courses targeted at increasing women in leadership and we want our active reps to participate. It’s important to me that we encourage progression and create ready-made officers to take on the challenges of the future.

Thanks Paula.

Lucy Maller recently attended the TUC's Women in Leadership school and ... we'll share more about this in the next MyAccord magazine where we'll be interviewing Lucy about her experiences throughout the course and her thoughts on next steps within Accord.

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