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Leading Change: Women in Teaching Unionism

Close your eyes and think about someone in a school leadership position – in fact, think of as many people as you can – who inspired you or supported you at any stage in your work as an ACT public school educator. Who do you see? In 2020, if you ask most educators this question, their lists will certainly contain both men and women. But this would not have been the case in 1956, when Val Baker joined the staff at Telopea Park High School as a beginning teacher. Systemic practices and regulations, and attitudinal barriers, meant that men and women were treated – and paid – differently and had different expectations of what their pathways in the teaching profession would look like. (To give you a measure of this, it was not until the late 1980s that a woman held a principal’s position in a secondary school.) 

Leadership in the education unions was not much different. While its membership was largely female, teacher union leadership was almost exclusively male. In 1973, with the establishment of the Commonwealth Teachers Federation (ACT), the union mirrored much of the structures of its much larger parent, the NSWTF and of the union movement generally. With only a couple of early exceptions, senior fulltime and honorary positions in the ACTTF were held by males, irrespective of the primary or secondary sector from which they came. 

Exclusion from debate and policy-setting

Many women felt excluded from debate and from policy-setting – not only because elected leadership positions were held by men, but because many policy positions and alliances were formed in informal settings from which women were excluded. Lyn Harasimiew (pictured right) began teaching in 1966. Remembering her time as a young classroom teacher and single parent with two small children, Lyn describes how attitudes and the behaviour of male colleagues made it difficult to get a woman’s voice heard and issues and issues addressed during the 1960s and 1970s. At the Annual Conference of the NSWTF’s Secondary Teachers Association in the ACT, she recalls:

“I was the only female there. We went for lunch and we all adjourned in the Worker’s Club, which used to be the Civic then, and to a bar. And all the boys went into the public bar, from which I was (legally) excluded, so I sat in the ladies’ bar. Very clear message then about what was going on.”

Tackling the hard questions

As we will see in future chapters of the AEU history project, there have been many moments when teacher union members have been divided over issues being debated – and actively tackled – by the wider Australian and international union movements. Should an education union even have a position in support of workers in other fields, or overseas? Should it have a position on uranium mining? On abortion? On Iraq? On the environment?

Many male members, according to Lyn, felt particularly uncomfortable with the issues pushed by women colleagues. She recognised that the union, like other workplaces, needed to debate:

“How much of women’s experience is relevant to unionism? Should a union look at the question of women’s broken service and the impact that has on their superannuation? Should unions look at the fact that women had primary childcare responsibilities – and often needed support to get to team meetings? Should abortion [or] access to safe contraception – that kind of stuff – should that be part of a union program?”

Making the invisible visibleĀ 

One of the most important legacies of policy change and advocacy – undertaken by unions and by individual activists in formal and informal advocacy groups – is that they begin by making the invisible visible. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now confidently answer these three questions: 

  • What are we losing by not seeking more diversity in our leaders and influencers?
  • What are the attitudes and unchallenged assumptions that allow discrimination?
  • What are the structural barriers that must be dismantled?

It was no accident that teaching had a male-dominated hierarchical structure in which women were denied opportunities for promotion and other forms of professional advancement: legal, structural and attitudinal barriers, including the ‘marriage bar’ and ideas about ‘the breadwinner’, entrenched over generations, had defined and restricted the role of women in society and in the workforce. 

‘The breadwinner’

In the 1950s through to the early 1980s, much public and private discourse about gender roles and leadership pathways was underpinned by unchallenged assumptions and fear of change. The long battles over equal pay, and over married women’s right to work at all, were bound up with ideas about why women work, and about who was the ‘breadwinner’. 

Val Baker was single at the time of her recruitment to teaching as an employee of the NSW government, which supplied teachers to ACT schools. Had she been married, she would not have been allowed to apply for a position, as NSW did not recruit married women. In other states and in the commonwealth, female public servants and teachers had to resign when they married. 

These ideas about the ‘breadwinner’ also underpinned the debate about equal pay. For decades, women doing the same work as men were paid just a fraction of their salary. In line with the societal norms of 1907, Justice Higgins, in establishing the Basic Wage, ruled that a man’s wage must be enough to feed and clothe his wife and family. A woman’s wage was only to pay for herself. 

An important lesson for union leaders and other activists has been that changes in pay, working conditions, access to leadership positions and other policy can often create a sense of competition – the perception that advancement of one group may entail loss for another. Val Baker remembers the concerns expressed by male colleagues on the announcement that equal pay would be introduced into the NSW public service in 1958:

“My infuriating memory was [of doing] as much teaching… and these male members sitting round in the staff room discussing how terrible it would be if there was equal pay. The reason was that it would reduce their pay if the women had to be paid more…”

Changing what leaders look like

Until the 1980s many male teachers and public servants (and some women) saw it as ‘natural’ that men held the leadership positions in organisations; that the female-dominated primary school sector, for example, was so often led by male principals. 

In 1985, many male members of the union raised concerns when the Schools Authority and ACTTF cooperated in supporting a temporary affirmative action initiative in which access to short-term HDA would be given to women in the first instance, to give them the opportunity for experience and to build profile and a stronger CV – all important prerequisites for later promotion. The six-month affirmative action was designed to change our ideas about what a leader looks like, and to give women – and men – confidence that women  could perform leadership roles well. 

One of the two young (male) ACTTF organisers of that time, circulating through school staffrooms across the ACT to promote the HDA initiative and explain the ACTTF’s support for it, was surprised to be confronted by an angry female primary school teacher who told him, “We don’t want petticoat government!”

Women leading change through and with their unions

With the social and attitudinal changes of the 1960s and and 70s, and with the rapid growth of the teaching workforce in the ACT, it became clear that women would no longer tolerate the second class citizen role that they had experienced for so long. Women’s organisations, such as the Canberra Women’s Liberation Group (formed in 1970) and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, were established in Canberra, along with the informal networks in which female teachers participated. 

Female members of the ACTTF and later the AEU ACT began to organise informal gatherings to support each other in their work and to encourage female colleagues to apply for promotions in the system and for leadership roles in the Federation. 

An important initiative in this period, jointly funded by the ACTTF and the ACT Schools Authority, helped lay the foundation for change in policy and practice: the appointment of Rosemary Richards (a future President and Secretary of the ACTTF; pictured left) to a position in the Schools Authority to target gender discrimination in the system.

Breakthrough moments came with the election of women into positions of influence in the union, which both reinforced the union’s capacity to develop policy on women’s issues and to pursue change, and gave greater profile to capable women who chose to go into leadership work, most significantly:

  • Cathy Robertson, elected as the ACTTF’s first full-time female Secretary (following on from her earlier election as Deputy President), and then as its first female President 
  • Joan Corbett, elected as the ACTTF’s second female Secretary
  • Audrey Duke, elected as an ACTTF Vice President and who later took up the ACTTF’s new position as Women’s Officer 

These women were all classroom teachers and activists who had been involved in the informal networking as well as in committees set up to pursue issues of vital interest to them as members – such as the women’s committee that ran the annual Women’s Conference and the Permanent Part-time Work Committee. 

Other activist female members benefited from vacancies that occurred when the ACT school system separated from the NSW system in 1973 and from the removal of former barriers to advancement. Several of these women combined their new roles as school principals and deputy principals, including: 

  • Margaret Dempster, who became both a primary principal and an ACTTF Vice President
  • the late Julie Biles AO, who held positions as an ACTTF Vice President, Schools Authority Council member and President of the Primary Principal Association
  • Cheryl O’Connor, a primary school principal, who served as an ACTTF Vice President and a Schools Authority Council member, and who became one of the first two female Directors of Schools in the ACT before re-joining the NSW system as a Regional Director

While these exceptional women were in the forefront of change as both union and professional leaders, other colleagues chose not to pursue elected office or promotion but worked to break down barriers and to support colleagues other ways – putting their energies into being change agents in education, community and society, while still connecting with the union as councillors and workplace representatives. 

These activists included Julia Ryan and Bigg Ward, who established the School Without Walls, the late Liz Dawson through her social justice and gender equity work, and so many more. Other female classroom teachers and teacher unionists from interstate became friends and mentors for ACTTF colleagues. Notable among these were: 

  • Jenni George AO, the first female president of the Australian Teachers’ Federation (1986-89) and first female president of the ACTU (1996-2000)
  • Sharan Burrow AC, the second female president of AEU (1992-2000); the second female president of the ACTU (2000-2010) and, since 2010, Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, representing 175 million workers in 153 countries and territories.

Unionism, and particularly teacher unionism, has come a long way since Bob Hawke’s all male ACTU Executive!

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