AEU Federal Women’s Conference — Advancing our Feminist Futures

AEU Federal Women’s Conference held in Melbourne on 4-5 October kicked off by exploring the idea of gender justice. Federal Women’s Officer Olivia Brown noted that it is lucky women want gender justice and “equality rather than revenge”.

It is no secret that women make up the majority of the union movement in Australia and the connection with unionism and feminism has resulted in significant improvements for women’s rights at work. In the Australian Education Union, of which the NSW Teachers Federation is a branch, women make up 76 per cent of the membership, representing almost 145,000 women members. This is the second biggest union in Australia.

Achieving gender equity as a cultural norm is essential and is at the core of our union business. To do this we must unite, aiming to achieve further advancements in areas such as job security and adequate retirement, superannuation, addressing violence against women and flexible work.

Multiple speakers shared insights into how women best navigate this union and political world as we must be determined, vigilant and united if we are to achieve gender justice. A key focus was the importance of recognising privilege and intersectionality in everything we do, valuing the experiences of women and girls around us, and learning from each other. By reflecting on how we live and learn, using our experiences, voices and history, we will be better set to do things differently in the future.

During the panel “Advancing Feminist Futures, Together We Rise”, which reflected on the Change the Rules campaign, ACTU President Michelle O’Neil reminded us that big change takes time. As unionists and feminists our focus should remain on growth and relevance to workers. This involves an emphasis on increasing the minimum wage, wage theft, insecure work, collective bargaining rights, 10 days of domestic violence leave for all workers and superannuation. Delegates were reminded that one third of women have no superannuation and introducing a choice between superannuation and an increase in take-home pay was not a choice but merely condemning people to lifetime poverty.

A highlight of the conference was the First Nations women panel. One quote in particular reminded us that in order to gain equality we shouldn’t just talk paternalistically about “creating a space” for Aboriginal voices because there are times when we actually need to step aside to allow these voices to be heard.

Many panels highlighted the fundamentals of joining together in order to create power and change, which are critical to the future of a more equal society. We cannot win the fight alone, however. All of us, including men and boys, must actively seek gender justice and be a part of the solution and not feel alienated. Both men and women need to be included to challenge structural norms and to do that we must also challenge our privilege. It is only when we consider different perspectives, share our experiences and challenge our own privilege that we can begin to shift our understandings.

United we stand strong. Incredible things can happen when the world is united. Advancing our feminist futures will happen and must happen.

Hannah Archer Lawton and Sharryn Usher are members of the Women’s and Anna Stewart Program Restricted Committee