Education unions have an important role to play in addressing the gendered impacts of the pandemic in the profession

published 25 May 2021 updated 3 June 2021

Education International member organisations reflected on how unions can respond to the gendered impacts of the public health crisis within the teaching profession.

The COVID-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Education International’s (EI) president, Susan Hopgood, outlined some of those impacts when she opened an EI webinar, “Losing Ground on Gender Equality because of Covid-19: What can Education Unions do?” on 20 May.

She noted that the care burden increased for women and girls during the pandemic, and that disproportionate numbers of women had lost their jobs.

In 2020, she stressed, Education International’s member organisations documented increasing inequality in education, for students with special needs, as well as those from marginalised groups. Among other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, affiliates reported increased risks of gender-based violence, child labour, and child marriage or early pregnancy, Hopgood said.

COVID-19: a gendered social catastrophe

Professor Raewyn Connell (Professor Emerita, University of Sydney and Life Member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Australia), gave the main webinar presentation. “COVID-19 is not only a medical issue, but a social catastrophe,” she said. “And part of the social dimension of the pandemic is its gender dimension.”

In her presentation, Professor Connell spoke about the increased need for care and care work during the pandemic with the burden of domestic care weighing more heavily on women and girls than on men and boys. She noted that the World Health Organisation pointed out that seventy per cent of care workers globally are women and most of them are in casualised and precarious jobs.

Another gendered dimension noted by Professor Connell is the high morbidity rate among men, compared to women. There is not yet sufficient research that explains this, however, higher incidences of the not wearing protective face masks have been recorded among men in different countries, for example. In addition, the high degree of chaos within policy responses in different countries is notable, particularly in countries led by male risk-takers.

Unions key to protecting education

Commenting on a key task for education unions during and after the pandemic, Professor Connell stated: “Protecting the service that schools, colleges and universities provide by stopping the wage cuts and the overwork that render teachers unable to give top quality educational services to their pupils, we need to continue the fight against precarious employment of teachers and other education workers,” she added.

She argued that unions can legitimately demand provision of in-service training for teachers around curriculum issues raised by the pandemic, ranging from health issues, to practical skills, to moral concerns.

Acknowledging that “solidarity matters”, Professor Connell called on education unions to act in solidarity with unions representing health and care workers, a casualised workforce providing essential services during the pandemic.

Sharing experiences and strategies

Webinar participants shared experiences and strategies in Zoom breakout rooms, on how education unions are responding to the gendered impacts of COVID-19.

The breakout room discussions addressed:

  • Gendered dimensions of COVID-19 in the teaching profession with regard to staff workload, emotional load and work/life balance;
  • Student and staff experiences of gender-based violence, abuse and harassment during lockdowns;
  • ‘Publish or perish’ in the midst of a pandemic: implications for women in higher education;
  • Sustaining women’s increased participation in education unions in the midst of a pandemic: sustaining emerging opportunities.

Closing the event, EI President Susan Hopgood said: “the pandemic is a social catastrophe, and its impact is a gendered one in many ways. That is truly the experience that education unions have had, that our women teachers have had, that our students have had. It is important that we respond to it.”

In thanking Professor Connell for her presentation, Hopgood acknowledged that “the messages of Professor Raewyn Connell spoke to my heart and head”.

An edited recording of Professor Connell’s presentation will be made available on the EI website in the coming days.