What a difference a year makes! If someone had told me on March 8th, 2020, that news cycles and my personal life would focus for a year on wearing masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, and vaccines, I would have been hard pressed to believe it. Without question, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a visceral impact on every aspect of our everyday lives, but its impacts have gone far beyond our personal experiences.
As we approach International Women’s Day 2021, the costs of the persistently large global gender gap have been brought into sharp focus. We have learned how quickly traditional mindsets about the role of women can re-assert themselves. Hard-won progress towards equality is more fragile than we had thought. The economic and social shocks wrought by the pandemic have occurred against the backdrop of a looming climate emergency and emerging far-right political movements that see women’s legitimate right to equality as a threat.
Still, out of crisis and upheaval emerges the opportunity for a renewed commitment to achieving an equal future for women and girls in the post-COVID-19 world. Women’s leadership towards that future is an essential condition for progress.
Education unions represent a working membership at the center of the quest for women’s equality. Women make up a substantial majority of the education workforce globally. The provision of universal, free, inclusive, quality education is an essential condition for progress towards equality for women and girls. Thus, we are well-placed to respond to pandemic impacts and to provide authentic leadership because, as women, we have lived through and shared in those impacts.
The pandemic has caused no shortage of ill effects, especially for women. According to UN Women, though women make up 39% of employed persons globally, they suffered 54% of the job losses. 70% of the health and social care workforce are women. Closures of schools and institutions of higher learning hit Education Support Personnel, early childhood educators and women in the higher education sector hard.
At the same time, many teachers and academics had to pivot quickly to working from home and online delivery of education. As they adapted instruction and took additional time to train for working online, workloads mushroomed. This trend continued after schools re-opened, along with deep concerns about safety.
The pandemic has seriously jeopardised progress towards universal free quality girls’ education. There is real concern that, in some parts of the world, girls will drop out of school and be made to do domestic work or small-scale buying and selling to support their families, especially in rural areas where distance learning is not accessible. Millions of girls may never return to school.
Despite progress towards a fairer division of unpaid care work, women’s share of that work has increased disproportionately during the pandemic period. Relative isolation at home resulting from physical distancing and lockdowns created conditions conducive to increased levels of violence against women and children.
Yet, there are some developments worth cheering about. Governments have begun to pay attention to the fact that essential workers are predominantly women. They have come to recognize the essential role that education workers play in their communities. In Argentina, Cape Verde and many other places, women and their unions have stood courageously in support of women’s human rights.
For the first time in its history, the United States elected as Vice-President a woman of color, Kamala Harris. Through the Education International’s women’s networks in Africa, scores of women teachers and unionists have received training on the use of online platforms. As EI affiliates have shifted to online events, women’s participation has increased because the union meeting, in a sense, has come to them.
Women have the knowledge, the experience, and the will to engage in leading their unions and leading action for change. As we look ahead to what needs to be done in a world reshaped by the pandemic, our re-commitment to women’s equality must start at home, in our own unions.
Women’s ability to exercise leadership in their unions will not happen by itself. Unions must build into their bones the infrastructure for women’s leadership and equality. Fortunately, there are many ways to do that.
Women’s committees and networks bring issues to the fore and provide an excellent training ground for leadership. Concerted, long-term leadership development programs for women, supported by dedicated funding, can be transformational.
Unions must put an end to harassment and violence. For women to attain the highest leadership positions, unions must do more than rely on hopeful coincidence. Election processes become equitable when systemic obstacles to women’s participation and success are removed.
Unions must ask themselves: How can we create the conditions for women to lead? How can we ensure that women’s leadership is sustainable? Gender quotas have a track record of success. Deeply rooted assumptions and biases about women must be challenged and dismantled. Such work takes some time, but it takes renewed commitment even more.
Despite the setbacks we have encountered during the pandemic, women have reason to be hopeful that we can achieve an equal future for women and girls. The essential thing is to take the long view, identify goals, set the plan for moving forward, and keep working.
One of my favorite quotations, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sums up the process of taking movements forward this way: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t need to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” We must be intentional and keep taking steps – large or small, bold or modest, ordinary or visionary, they all contribute to scaling the staircase of women’s equality.
I am acutely aware that, for many women, the very act of teaching, or leading a school, or leading a union puts their lives at serious risk. I am humbled by their courage and the depth of their commitment.
As we, women educators and, indeed, all educators, members of Education International, together re-commit to the struggle for women’s equality, let us continue to support and inspire one another. Let us work together to forge the path ahead.