When I first joined the union, what attracted me was not so much the suggestion that the union was there to protect me if something should happen to me in my professional life. My motivation was more that the union was a place where I could make things happen together with others. Teaching is a feminized profession, which means that schools are full of capable women leaders. All my life, I have seen and been inspired by how women exercise leadership in their role as teachers, as lecturers educating future teachers, and taking the lead as trainers in educating the unions. However, I have also seen examples in my own country, Sweden, and in other parts of the world, of how these women leaders are being undermined, are not receiving the recognition nor the support needed to take their leadership further in order to influence the future of the teaching profession and the teachers’ unions.
Today on International Women’s Day, I think about how we as unions can work to empower women and advance the teaching profession.
Real power comes from understanding that we as union leaders must be team players and that we play on the teachers’ team. This means prioritizing the affiliates, meeting teachers at their work places to stay in touch with reality. In my country, the Government is usually interested in keeping up a good dialogue with the social partners. As the president of the largest Swedish teachers’ union, I frequently meet the Ministers, particularly the Education Minister and the Minister of Higher Education and Research, and of course also the largest employer organizations in education. Since I also frequently visit schools and meet teachers and principals, the Ministers know that I am firmly grounded in the teaching profession and its values, and that my well-founded arguments are to be trusted.
Change is brought about through joint action. Being a successful leader is about gathering and sharing the strength, collegial knowledge and experience among the members. As a union leader I have power and access to platforms that not everyone has. Sometimes, the practise of power-sharing and collaborative leadership is said to be typical of women; this is often based on the negative notion that women are weak, and thus have to promote collaboration. I would rather say that it is a matter of effective leadership which draws on the power, competence and engagement of many. Just as teachers grow and develop together with colleagues and students, union leaders need to develop and lead in dialogue with colleagues and affiliates.
EI and its member organizations have taken a firm stand to advance gender equality within our own organizations, in education and in society. In the Swedish context, an important aspect has been to mainstream gender equality as an intrinsic part of quality education. During the last year, our advocacy focus has been on the pre-school curriculum, the delivery of which also requires that teachers’ receive professional development that takes gender equality into account. How can we as a profession contribute to dealing with long-standing structural problems such as boys lagging behind in school but still reaching the highest positions in society and the highest salaries? I do not say that teachers should fix it, but I believe the profession increasingly could take its leadership role and contribute more to changing structures of discrimination. Lärarförbundet, my union, uses different strategies to comply with our joint commitments. One is advocacy with companies who still today, produce and reproduce stereotyped roles for both women and men in the teaching materials they sell to Swedish schools. The union runs equality projects and trade union training for national and local leaders, and individual members. The union has an action plan to counteract all types of discrimination, and to prevent and act on sexual harassment, which is discussed and surveyed every year.
The Swedish context is favourable to being a female union leader. Half of the Government Ministers are women, but we are still waiting for the first Swedish female Prime Minister. In the newly formed Government, the Minister of Education and the Minister of Higher Education and Research are women. Given this set-up, we have a unique opportunity in the social dialogue to take into account the capacity and leadership that lies within our female-dominated profession. However, gender inequality is structural, ingrained in history, in society and in our unions. We need to join forces.
The staggering teacher shortage in Sweden compels us to use our power to attract both men and women to the profession. Female and male role models in the profession and in the unions play an important role, and we can succeed if we join forces to empower our profession to take the lead.
Being a teacher and a leader in a teachers’ trade union is being a part of something bigger, both when it comes to gender equality, the right to quality education and sustainable democracy.
It all starts with good teachers!
This blog is part of a series of blogs to commemorate International Women’s Day 2019, which highlight gender and education issues that are linked to the themes and sub-themes of the 8th EI World Congress, which will take place in Bangkok, Thailand July 19-26th 2019.
Read the previous blog in the series: “Educating Girls Matters: How You Can Help Change the World”, by Kayce Freed Jennings
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.