Why women are under represented in teacher union leadership – and why this needs to change

By Mihajla Gavin, Meghan Stacey, Susan McGrath-Champ and Rachel Wilson

Amidst declining union influence, teacher unions have retained considerable power. However in Australia, while females overwhelmingly occupy the majority of teaching positions and teacher union membership, it is the women who are finding union leadership and activism increasingly difficult. We decided to look more closely at what affects the participation of women in their teacher unions and what might help increase women’s representation and involvement.

COVID-19 and women’s work

The COVID-19 pandemic has done much to highlight – and exacerbate – existing patterns of gender inequality. In the world of work, many women have found themselves juggling more than they used to. Not only have they needed to learn ‘Zoom’ or some other video conferencing tool to enable their ‘work from home’, many have taken on extra responsibilities such caring for children at home during the working day and supervising their children’s participation in remote learning.

However, it seems ‘working from home’ doesn’t quite mean the same thing for women as it does for men. In the university sector for example, it has been reported that while academic journal submissions are up, they’re mostly from men. We acknowledge, of course, that every domestic arrangement is unique, and the division of labour within the home shows general signs of becoming increasingly even, but patterns persist, and they aren’t equal.

More work for a ‘feminised’ industry

These uneven patterns in women’s participation across spheres of work, home and beyond is particularly interesting when it comes to women who are teachers. Teachers are one of the most unionised professions globally, at times even increasing their membership against a backdrop of union decline, but teaching is often referred to as a female-dominated or ‘feminised’ profession. In NSW public schools, 72.4% of teachers are women.

It’s also a profession where workload seems to be intensifying. Our recent research conducted in collaboration with the NSW Teachers Federation found 87% of teacher respondents reported an increase in their working hours over the period from 2013-2017.

So, women are particularly impacted by any escalation in teacher workload, simply because they are the majority of the teaching workforce.

The triple burden

The literature on women’s union participation notes the impact of what has been called the ‘triple burden’ – the combination of:

  • formal work responsibilities;
  • societal expectations of women in regard to care-giving and other domestic responsibilities; and
  • union involvement.

Typically, the second factor is seen to hamper the third. As women normally take on a greater proportion of labour in the home, the possibility for active involvement in the union declines. We were interested to see whether this is also what is happening in teaching, with so many teachers being women, and teaching being such an intense, and intensifying occupation.

To consider this issue (see here to access a free version) we drew on two related studies. The first was a case study of the NSW Teachers Federation, exploring the union’s response to reform impacting teachers’ working conditions. The second was a large workload study we conducted via the NSW Teachers Federation, with a response rate of 18,234 teaching staff – constituting 33.6% of the Federation’s membership.

In NSW 72.4% of public-school teachers are women, and roughly the same proportion are members of the Federation, with 73.5% being union members. However, despite the union’s active efforts to build female representation at all levels, when we looked at the proportion of those involved in key decision-making forums, the stats were a bit different. We found only 55% of union executive identified as female. Generally speaking, things become more representative the closer we get to the level of the school, where 64.9% of union delegates and 71% of workplace committee members are women.

We should note that women’s involvement in the NSW Teachers Federation has been actively supported and is increasing, with movement in the right direction. While the union of the 1990s was described to us as “90% men and very blokey”, the Federation has since implemented a range of progressive strategies, including via the provision of childcare. Moreover, the union has been led by eminent senior female leaders throughout its history including Lucy Woodcock, Jennie George, and most recently Maree O’Halloran, and has successfully campaigned for major improvements to conditions for women teachers, like paid maternity leave.

So, what is hindering women’s involvement in their union?

Conflict with homelife

There is evidence in our survey that workload is impacting home life for women teachers. More women than men (86% vs 82%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that their work demands conflicted with their family responsibilities. As one respondent commented, “I’m not really sure if I can sustain a workload of 60-70 hours per week whilst also caring for my children and family. Something has to give!” This indicates that union involvement, as the third element of the ‘triple burden’, may also fall by the wayside.

Intensity of workload

Yet this finding also highlights that it’s not just about caring responsibilities – it’s also about the intensity of the work itself. Survey data indicate that women teachers do have slightly higher weekly working hours, at 56.9 compared to 55.1 for men, a finding that, while small, was statistically significant. There may have been some gendered pressures at play here; as another participant commented, “the biggest problem with teachers particularly primary, being female dominated, [is] we keep saying yes to things without…saying no”.

Traditional union culture

Further, rather than just home responsibilities and workload being an issue, there is also a role being played by traditional union culture. Despite efforts to assist female unionists, union meeting schedules can conflict with caring requirements, for instance, with meetings sometimes taking place late into the night or on weekends.

The profile of unionism today is no longer just a hardhat and a hi-vis vest. Women are now more likely to be union members than men and research has consistently shown there is a need for change in how unions engage their members.

The ‘catch 22’

While female membership is going up, representation is not yet equal. The intensification of teacher’s work, combined with women’s heavier burdens in terms of family responsibilities and carer duties, conspire to limit women’s progression into union leadership. This is a catch-22 situation, as more women’s leadership is needed to address the triple burden women face.

Awareness of the triple burden of union activism, family commitments and workload, is key to achieving the challenging goal of gender equality in unionism but that task is growing more daunting because of the increasing intensity of teachers work. The work demands on all teachers are currently very high, and are likely to only get worse, as we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effects.

In a time of crisis and uncertainty, having a union body that is fully representative of its members, and cognisant of their needs, could significantly help address issues currently facing the teaching profession and ultimately, the students they teach.

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey

Susan McGrath-Champ is Associate Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.

Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

2 thoughts on “Why women are under represented in teacher union leadership – and why this needs to change

  1. John says:

    the Vic branch of the Australain Education Union seems to have balnce right- 12 leaderships positions with 9 women-

    Meredith Peace – Branch President
    Erin Aulich – Branch Secretary
    Justin Mullaly – Deputy President
    Martel Menz – Deputy Secretary
    Elaine Gillespie – Vice President, TAFE and Adult Provision
    Briley Stokes – Vice President, Primary
    Marino D’Ortenzio – Vice President, Secondary
    Cara Nightingale – Vice President, Early Childhood
    Phil Smith – Deputy Vice President, TAFE and Adult Provision
    Seir Holley – Deputy Vice President, Primary
    Deb Fischer – Deputy Vice President, Secondary
    Lily Ames – Deputy Vice President, Early Childhood

  2. Meghan Stacey says:

    Thanks John – that’s good to see!

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