'I reach for the stars but I'm no superwoman'

February 25, 2005

When Sally Hunt was elected general secretary of the Association of University Teachers in 2002, she became the second woman to head the union since it was founded in 1919.

She was also, at 37, one of the youngest and, unusually for a union leader, had just had a baby.

Add to this the likelihood that Ms Hunt will also become one of a handful of trade union leaders to successfully negotiate a merger - talks with lecturers' union Natfhe are, both unions insist, on course - and it is perhaps odd that profiles of her are thin on the ground.

"I am a very private person," she said. Indeed, she was reluctant to be interviewed for this profile.

So, for the record, she was born in Germany and spent her first six years on an army base, where her father was in the education corps. On their return to England, the Hunts settled in Wiltshire.

After a comprehensive school education, Ms Hunt went on to Sussex University and studied international politics.

"It was a fantastic place to be," she recalled. "I vividly remember one of my lecturers, Christopher Thorne, stressing that I must never be afraid to ask questions. That has stood me in good stead."

On graduating, she had a number of jobs, including one in the Sussex Careers Library where she became the National and Local Government Officers' Association representative, encouraged by Pauline Thorne, now president of Unison.

Labour Party politics and trade unionism were already woven into Ms Hunt's background. She said it was no surprise that she "naturally gravitated" towards unions.

In her early career she helped organise support for the miners' strike, and she recalls standing outside both Eddie Shah's Today plant and News International's Wapping centre.

She became London regional official for the AUT in 1995. Since then she has worked in nearly all areas of the AUT, including equal opportunities, organisation and recruitment, before becoming assistant general secretary in 1997.

In 2002, just weeks after Ms Hunt returned from maternity leave, the union's general secretary, David Triesman, announced that he was standing down.

"I faced a huge decision," Ms Hunt said. "I either stood for general secretary or let the opportunity pass - possibly for another ten years. I decided to go for the job."

She won with about 53 per cent of the vote. But combining the job with being a parent is not easy.

"I am not a superwoman. I cannot stand that label. But I do exhaustion well," she said.

The downside is that she rarely gets to take her daughter to school. On the plus side, she has been able to show her daughter her office, to emphasise that mothers can, in her words, "reach for the stars".

She is insistent that universities must promote more family friendly policies. "The pay gap between male and female academics is an outrage. Universities need to act," she said.

Ms Hunt's resolve as a union boss was tested during tortuous negotiations to introduce a new pay spine and framework. The AUT held out for a memorandum of understanding before it would sign the agreement. Other unions representing higher education employees had already signed, and the AUT's delay created tensions.

But she insisted: "That memorandum was crucial. It means no AUT member will be worse off when the framework is introduced."

She is certainly fiery, or "passionate" as she prefers to put it. "Capital is no respecter of people - that is why we have unions. I will put my members first at all costs."

The planned marriage is an example of putting members first.

"I saw in the dispute how employers could play divide and rule. A combined union would be stronger and would allow the general secretary to speak for all of post-16 education," she added.

And will she stand for that post? Ms Hunt is up for re-election at the end of this year - before the new union is due to come on stream.

"It's an enormously tempting job and, to be honest, who wouldn't be interested in standing?" she said.



Sussex University


Selling jewellery I could never afford. Ruined me for life


To create a strong, united and powerful profession


Is men who beat up women


Want to see the gender pay gap eliminated and members of my union treated with respect. I'd rather not wait that long!


Robert Kilroy Silk

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