The future will be created in classrooms. This was the key message of Her Excellency Tarja Halonen in her keynote opening speech to the EI’s Second World Women’s Conference today, 7 April, in Dublin, Ireland. Addressing almost 400 delegates from education trade unions representing around 90 countries across the globe, the former President of Finland said that teachers and educators play a central role in shaping the values of the next generation.
The conference, with the theme, ‘Women in Trade Unions and in Education: From Words to Action’, was also addressed by Ireland’s Education and Skills Minister, Ruairi Quinn TD, and EI President Susan Hopgood. Setting the tone for the three-day event, Hopgood said; ‘Our roles as educators and trade unionists and women make us indispensable to decision making about education policies and priorities. But we are also a powerful force for advocacy and change across a range of issues.’
In her speech on women and power in the post-2015 world, Halonen, who began her career as a trade union lawyer, highlighted the value of peer support. “It is really important than women support, encourage, and motivate each other as well as benchmark and learn from each other,” she said, adding that Finland’s strong education system owes much to its strong union, OAJ, an affiliate of EI.
Women central to future development
Addressing the importance of education, she highlighted how the Millennium Development Goals rate education as an important means of achieving quality and social justice. Secondary education – and the importance of teachers in this sector - is the next priority, said Halonen, the current Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders.
Gender equality, she said, will become better supported when it is linked to its positive impact on gross domestic product. Research from the Nordic Council showed that “the entry of women into the labour market led to a growth of 40 per cent in the 1970s”, she said.
Halonen also highlighted the role of women in sustainable development, the importance of sexual rights and appropriate sexual education, the security of boys and girls in schools, and the role of civil society.
Ireland: Unequal representation in education leadership
Ruairi Quinn, TD, Minister for Education and Skills in Ireland, highlighted how a quota system is being used in that country to ensure a minimum number of female participants in politics and State boards. He placed this in an educational context where 85 per cent of teachers at primary school level are women, but occupy just over half of leadership positions at this level. Women constitute almost 43 per cent of academic staff at third level in Ireland but represent only 19 per cent at professorial level. “We cannot be complacent,” he said, adding that Ireland needs gender-specific research and policies.
The Education Minister finished his speech with a quote from Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson: “In a society where the rights and potential of women are constrained, no man can be free. He may have power, but he won’t be free.”
Measures to boost female representation
In the first plenary panel on Women and Leadership in Trade Unions, the participants, all women general secretaries of their unions, acknowledged the support of family as well as female and male colleagues and mentors in their rise through their unions’ ranks.
Hosted by Haldis Holst, EI Deputy General Secretary, the panel comprised Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers in the UK, Habiba Mizouni of Tunisia’s National Union of University College Doctors, Pharmacists and Dentists, and Sheila Nunan of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. Amongst other issues, it explored whether quotas or women’s committees were useful tools to boost the representation of women in top union positions.
Of particular interest were the tactics employed by the Tunisian union in the context of the Arab Spring, a new national constitution, and an Islamist government. “We have a quota system to empower women to participate in union leadership roles,” said Mizouni, adding that her union has a central role in preserving academic freedom and structures from political interference. “Education has a key role in a democratic society to guarantee basic rights in terms of progress and equality. We have civil society and unions to ensure that things get better. Our future will be determined by women and the quality of education we give our youngest.”
To find out more about EI’s Second World Women’s Conference, log on here: http://pages.ei-ie.org/women2014/index.php?lang=en or follow the conference Twitter hashtag #EIWomen2014