AT the first union branch meeting I attended, the male chair made a joke about woman drivers and everybody laughed. It came after a female member had hovered politely by the tea and coffee table making sure everyone was adequately refreshed, and after it was assumed that another was there to take notes rather than to participate in the meeting. Cast any images of the 1970s out of your head: this was the 2010s.

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for my male comrades, I stuck it out. I knew the importance of being part of a union, both for my own individual rights and for the strong collective message it sent. That low-level hum of sexism has followed me through the movement, though. Working on a book about trade unions, I’ve lost count of the number of times men have tried to lecture me about its history or sent me unsolicited emails with advice on how to approach the subject.

That’s why it was gratifying news this week that the Scottish Trades Union Congress will welcome its first woman General Secretary later this year when Grahame Smith retires. When Roz Foyer, a Unite stalwart, steps up to become the most senior representative for Scotland’s 540,000 trade union members, it will also mark the first time that all trade union centres in the UK and Ireland will be led by women. Considering that women make up more than half of the UK’s trade union membership, it’s about time too.

Despite the key role that women have played in labour struggles throughout history, the union movement was constructed in the model of men; it was men who designed and built it, men who led it, and men who it catered to as default, with the standard worker often envisaged as a white male manual labourer. Ironically, while men ploughed on with making the union movement in their mould, women were often busy fighting their own workplace struggles for equal pay and equal recognition on the sidelines.

This account of the origins of the trade union movement isn’t just subjective analysis, it is fact: addressing the TUC in 1875, parliamentary secretary Henry Broadhurst called for Congress to “bring about a condition where wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world.” More than 100 years later in 1982, when women workers at the Plessey electrics plant in Bathgate proposed industrial action to resist its closure, male trade unionists blocked them in a vote.

The trade union movement remains more essential than ever in this time of accelerated inequality and the plummeting standards at work, and many parts of it have worked hard to shake off a reputation as a working class old boys’ network but its history still casts many a shadow, in ways both subtle and brazen. Just two years ago, Glasgow’s majority-female council workers found themselves making history when they took strike action over historic pay inequalities and won. But it took the persistence of women workers who knew their worth and a new generation of female organisers to right a historic wrong set in motion by the unions themselves alongside a Labour-run council which didn’t even pretend to prioritise the interests of working-class women.

Installing women in leadership positions, welcome as it is, is no silver bullet for tackling these structural and ingrained barriers for women in the union movement. While Foyer’s record as an avowed feminist is reassuring for women workers across Scotland, the challenge of transforming an entire movement is not hers to bear alone, and nor should it be in a project built on the ideals of collectivism and building power from the bottom up.

But an STUC leadership that prioritises equalities and building power amongst women workers at community and branch level has the potential to be transformative, both for women’s individual lives and for the movement as a whole. After all, if trade unions are to survive and return to their former glory, they have no choice but to adapt to today’s employment landscape, where a growing number of women face greater challenges than ever.

When the union movement was at its peak in the 1980s, it was in part because it recognised the dominance of industry and sought to organise manual labourers accordingly. But unions remain strong amongst those industries while the industries themselves dwindle alongside rapid deindustrialisation. Meanwhile, service and care sectors where women are more likely to be concentrated have expanded rapidly but remain largely unorganised, despite the plethora of problems encountered there, ranging from pay inequalities to insecure and casual work arrangements, health and safety and poverty wages.

A feminist trade union movement would take seriously the challenge of organising these workplaces, engaging not only with current union members but with those not yet signed up – tackling head on a tension which has always existed for the movement. It would seek to build women activists at grassroots levels and elect them as leaders at branch and regional levels. It would prioritise pay equality, and maternity and discrimination rights, even if it made some male members uncomfortable or put some noses out of joint. And it would listen to the voices of all women, and minorities, and not just those who have traditionally been most represented.

The trade union movement isn’t perfect, but it is vital. It’s also changing, with recent campaigns around women’s representation in the movement and new grassroots unions like United Voices of the World organising workers in the gender-based violence and charity sectors for the first time. And in Scotland, Glasgow’s equal pay women have created a watershed moment for female council workers across the UK, many of whom have long been exploited and are now making their voices heard for the first time. The opportunities are plentiful if the movement chooses to take them.

And if fresh leadership leads to a bold and radical agenda, and the building up of new generations of female trade unionists, the future could be bright for Scotland’s women workers.