Gaining strength through women’s stories

The report for the first Women’s Conference in 1978 in the Education journal included an article by Jennie George who wrote, in reference to sexism, what it means and how it operates.

She remarked that by the end of the 1960s women faced a situation where “on the surface large battles appeared won” but they were beginning to ask, “Why was it that although teaching was a profession dominated numerically by women that so few of them were to be found in positions where decisions were being made? Why was the same true for our union structures at every level? And why was it that women weren’t involved to the extent that we all would have wanted?”

These words are just as relevant today. In recent years we’ve achieved more structural improvements for women in a range of areas but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

That’s why the theme for Women’s Conference this year was “The strength of our stories”. It was an opportunity not only to celebrate 40 years of the Women’s Conference and the centenary of Federation but also examine the progress we have made for women in public education and our union.

The day began with a well-attended breakfast seminar about superannuation provided by Jodie Haydon from First State Super. The conference was opened with a moving Acknowledgement of Country by Kerry Toomey and Charline Emzin-Boyd.

Deputy President Joan Lemaire provided the Senior Officers report covering significant issues faced by women over recent decades.

Our keynote speaker Jennie George was unable to attend in person and a recorded message was played to the conference (see article in the August journal or you can watch it here).

The panel session “Decades of Achievement”, which included all but one of the Women’s Coordinators since 1975, reminded us that there have been some robust arguments over the years regarding the equality of pay and representation within our union and across the union movement.

Each of the Women’s Coordinators recounted examples of major campaigns and significant cases during their tenure.

The Women’s Coordinator position was established in 1975 in an effort to redress past inequality and in 1979 the Federation’s Affirmative Action policy had been adopted at Annual Conference.

It stated that the policy was “designed to promote the status of women in teaching to one of equality with men” and “to compensate women teachers for past discrimination via long-term programs to develop leadership skills [and] assertiveness”. It also included references to proportional representation.

A 1986 Annual Conference decision referred to proportional representation of women stating that the female/male balance of the union “has overall consequences for women in that the priorities for debate and action are decided with less than a proportional input which reflects women’s experience at the workplace, and as a consequence, much of the philosophy and many of the decisions reflect male perceptions of social reality”.

It goes on to state: “Women must be at the forefront in the development of policies and actions that reflect their situation, and their needs.”

The Women’s Action Plan developed from these decisions has as essential components the “removal of barriers and practices that discourage women’s activity; the organising and educating of women to increase their awareness of union issues and confidence to participate; the identification and promotion of issues and policies of relevance to women members”.

In recognition of this history, the workshops for Women’s Conference this year reflected these aims. Workshops covered Aboriginal education, disability and equity, diversity, casual and temporary teaching, campaigning, non-school based and rural and remote teachers.

Workshop-elected rapporteurs and participants were asked to consider the level of engagement, potential barriers to activism and the ways in which women could actively engage in the union’s campaigns and actions. These summaries were presented by the rapporteurs to the plenary.

Women’s Conference is about gaining strength from these stories and being inspired by our colleagues to actively contribute to a powerful and enduring future for Federation. When that happens it will be thanks to the leadership contributions of so many women like you, like us, in making cultural, social and structural change a reality.

Leeanda Smith, Women’s Coordinator