“For the love of it”: Educators, women’s work and advocacy

Just over five years ago, I stood with a group of early childhood educators and United Voice members in one of the many gardens at Parliament House, and listened to these words from the man who would become Australia’s Opposition Leader.

“It is no longer enough, I think, for Australia to rely upon the emotional, the intellectual and indeed the physical efforts of Australia’s childcare workers and not adequately remunerate them.

“It is no longer enough, in Australia, that we say to marvellous professional childcare workers, for whom we entrust the development and the safety of our children and for whom these people commit emotionally to our kids every day and to say that there’s nothing that can be done about your low level of remuneration.”

Optimism doesn’t come easy to me. But standing there in a crowd of women wearing the classic black and plum Big Steps shirts, hearing Bill Shorten – then one of the most prominent members of the Gillard Labor Government – publicly and clearly state that we ask a lot of educators, but choose not to pay them properly for it, felt like a big win. It felt like a turning point. Surely change couldn’t be too far away?

Of course, since that day in March 2013, a lot has changed. Less than three months later, Julia Gillard wouldn’t be Prime Minister anymore and we’d be shaking our heads as Kevin Rudd was improbably given a second crack at being PM. Less than three months after that, Tony Abbott’s brief – but somehow interminable – time leading the country began.

Now, Malcolm Turnbull prepares for his second election showdown and Bill Shorten leads the Labor Party into a sixth year in Opposition.

You know what hasn’t changed though? The pay, conditions and expectations of Australia’s early childhood educator workforce.

Five years and two months after that day on Capital Hill, it turns out Australia absolutely can and does continue to rely on the physical, mental and emotional work of an underpaid, undervalued and unsupported group of women every single day.

And there is no sense in the political or advocacy landscape that things will look much different for them in another five years.

The more things change…

In February this year, educators’ battle for professional wages was dealt a cruel blow. The Fair Work Commission dismissed a combined wage claim from United Voice and the Independent Education Union, after spending almost five years thinking about it. The tea leaves of whether the unions’ applications were up to scratch, or whether the Commission is, will be read for many months to come. The decision was just Australia once again kicking the can down the road.

Because of the way wages work, and because of the structure of the sector (a mixed-market business model), it’s hard to see a proper win on wages for educators that won’t eventually involve the Fair Work Commission. Everything we do exists within a system, and the industrial system in Australia states clearly that a Certificate III in Metalwork is worth, in wages, about twice as much as a Certificate III in Children’s Services.

Regardless of your view on early education, there can’t be too many people out there who can genuinely, hand on heart, believe that metalwork is twice as valuable to society as the work of early educators. Most of them are probably in Parliament. But that’s what the system states in black and white. To change it, there will eventually have to be a decision from the industrial umpire.

But while those big discussions continue to swirl around, educators face the same challenges they did five years ago (and five years before that). Low wages, low recognition and a country that isn’t inclined to do anything about it.

In fact, it’s worse. Educators used to be able to access support from the Professional Support Coordinators to improve their skills and become better at their jobs. Funding for that program was ceased in 2016.

The Government used to have a national Educator Workforce Strategy. It was short, full of meaningless value statements and had no impact whatsoever, but at least it was there. That expired in 2016 as well, and the Government has expressed no interest whatsoever in developing a new one.

While the Parliament of Australia worked itself into a daily frenzy last year as those highly-paid, privileged members of our society elected to Parliament were worried they might lose their jobs because they couldn’t be bothered to fill in a form properly, educators continued to go to work every day. While Prime Ministers came and went, policies shifted and changed and a new era of “innovation and reform” was visited up on us – nothing changed for educators.

After the ill-thought out, last-minute policy of desperation that was the Early Years Quality Fund, no-one has taken up a serious policy to address this problem. The people that suffer while we try and make up our minds whether to do anything about it?

It’s who it always is. The women we’ve always expected to do this work for free.

Women’s work

The statistics that underpin the early childhood sector are stark. 97% of the workforce is female. It’s one of the lowest Award rates that requires a qualification, barely above minimum wage.

For all the writing, thinking and stupid comments from politicians that have been associated with these facts, it’s actually all incredibly simple. The gender of the workforce and the pay are directly and inseparably linked. The one is the reason for the other.

You can come up with any other theory, model or proposal you want. It doesn’t change anything. “Childcare” is seen as women’s work, women have been doing it for free for ages, so it’s not worth anything in an industrial sense.

The bitter irony that faces women working as early educators today is that one of the fundamental reasons the “childcare” sector was developed and supported was to ensure women could actually enter the workforce.

The incredible situation is that as a society we created opportunities for women to overcome institutionalised sexism and maintain a career with a family,  but to do it we created a workforce “underclass” of women to continue it. It was, and arguably still is, seen as “women’s work”.

It takes a particularly brutal kind of policy decision-making that “rewards” the Australian workforce with the ability to more easily access employment by ensuring that the people required to enable that are kept in poverty wages, with next-to-no chance of rising above them.

There’s a lot of handwringing about the low percentage of men working in the sector, and their experiences working in an environment that may be suspicious of their presence. But this issue is dwarfed by comparison to the challenges faced by women, who make up 97% of the actual work of early education, but are represented in CEO and Board roles at shamefully low levels.

There’s this bizarre school of thought that if women can just work harder to make the sector more welcoming for men, the percentages will shift.

Because, as usual, women need to solve issues for men.

The truth is this is a symptom. Until we engage in a community conversation about women’s work and who is responsible for caring roles in our society, and then undertake the structural reform that is required, nothing will actually change.

Educators should be the front line of broader advocacy for women. What job is more directly connected to upholding the male-dominated society, and is less paid? What job is more directly connected to ideas that women should just do it for “the love of it”?

The conversation about unpaid domestic work, and care work, needs to be happening outside the early education sector – but there’s no reason educators can’t be one of the loudest voices in that conversation.

A cruel choice

Introduced in 2012, the National Quality Framework was a significant reform to quality expectations for children and families in Australia. Disparate and complicated regulations from every State and Territory were brought together into one system. The standards were raised for educational outcomes for children. The importance of the first five years of life were acknowledged in policy and law.

I am, and have always been, a huge advocate for the NQF. The research on the first five years is unequivocal – there’s no more important timeframe for development. We know in Australia that 22% of children are starting school developmentally vulnerable. Every child in Australia has the right to a high-quality early education in any service in Australia.

But as essential and important as the NQF is, it has always had a fundamental missing piece – the workforce.

The NQF should have been accompanied with significant funding and support to the sector for educators, and a long-term campaign to gain public support for the benefits of early childhood education – and for early childhood educators.

Children deserve the best outcomes, and we should not negotiate on the highest expectations for those who work with young children. But here’s the conversation that the sector hasn’t really had – can we really expect people that are beset by low wages, low recognition (and with no hope for that to change any day soon) to do that work for us?

I’ve been thinking more and more about the cruel choice that the early childhood sector is currently built upon. I’m an Early Childhood Teacher, but I don’t work directly with children anymore. I work in a nice comfortable office and help oversee four early childhood centres, and their teams.

We, and I, ask a lot of educators. I’ve never apologised for having high expectations to ensure the best possible outcomes for young children, and I’ve seen the incredible hard work that educators do every day.

But this is the uniquely cruel situation we face. The NQF and high-quality approaches to early education are about raising outcomes for young children; but at the expense of women, who we expect to work harder, smarter, in a more perfect way – with shit pay and conditions.

What is an advocate to do? Can we really continue to pretend that both things are possible? That we can expect lowly-paid women to continually do the work of fixing our appalling AEDC statistics, asking more and more of them on behalf of children? Are we not just perpetuating a sick system that is actually breaking people?

Burnout and stress are not risks in early education – they’re guarantees.

I don’t have an answer to these questions, but we need to think about them. I do know that responses that I used to casually give – “yep, it’s hard job but it’s so important for young children, educators need to work really hard” – aren’t good enough any more.

We need to acknowledge that the system we have at the moment encourages positive outcomes for children through largely negative outcomes for the women who do the work. How long can that continue? How long can advocates, leaders and educators be forced to sacrifice the wellbeing of the workforce to ensure the wellbeing of children?

Finding the anger

We know that the cruel choice isn’t just about children and educators. The wellbeing of the female workforce is sacrificed at more than one altar.

In some cases, we can now actually put a specific number to the benefit we leech out of the female workforce. The rise of the for-profit corporate provision of early childhood education has seen $1 billion in profits, directly drawn from the work of educators in centres.

We also know that workforce participation across the entire economy is reliant to some degree on employees being able to have their children in an early education service. A lot of sectors and industries like to make the bold claim that “the country would grind to a halt if we stopped doing what we do”.

Early childhood educators might be the only workforce in Australia who can make that claim with a straight face. Their thanks for undertaking a crucial and irreplaceable role in the nation’s economic stability? Poverty wages.

With what we know faces educators every single day, you would assume there is endless fighting and advocacy for a revolutionary change to the situation faced by the workforce.

Don’t hold your breath. Beyond United Voice’s long-running Big Steps campaign, we don’t hear much about plans or strategies to fix things for educators. There are more campaigns for children in the first five years in Australia than you can shake a stick at, but what’s out there for educators?

Where’s the anger, where’s the demand for change? For some reason we are far more comfortable advocating for children than our own colleagues.

It seems the best sector advocacy can do is try to blunt the edges of a system that doesn’t work. The Federal Government’s reforms to early education were called – not nicknamed, not jokingly referred to, actually named in legislation – The Jobs for Families Package.

In black and white: The only value in your work is in ensuring the current, male-dominated economic system is perpetuated.

The sector’s advocacy response to this once-in-a-decade reform was to do a bit of trimming around the ages and cop a reduction in minimum weekly subsidised hours from 24 to 15. We ended up with 12.

Where was the vision for a sector that places children, and the women who support them, front and centre? Where were any major players in the sector saying “the system is broken, and this doesn’t fix it?”

Separate even to that vision – where is the anger? Where is the fury that we can’t move forward? Are we really happy with accepting the status quo?

For those of us in those cushy office roles, it’s time to realise that the silence of educators isn’t a lack of anger or frustration with their positions – it’s exhaustion.

If we’re in leadership roles, we have a responsibility to demand more than a little bit of change. We need a revolution in how this work is viewed, and how we appreciate those who do it.

That starts with making other tough choices – like deciding once and for all that early education can’t be for profit.

That quality early education costs a lot of money, and that Government has to fund it.

Listening to other voices

This post articulates as best I can where I am right now on these issues, and my own levels of discomfort. Why do I feel I have to write and speak on these issues facing women?

As Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard himself!) says: “People won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it.”

But there are far better, stronger and wiser voices out there than mine – and they’ve been fighting for far longer.

Read Eva Cox. Read Lisa Bryant. Read Leanne Gibbs.

Read all the other hundreds of voices out there. But crucially, we need to start listening more to the educator workforce. We need to acknowledge their struggles with more than just “expectations”. We need to hear their stories and respond with more than just “reform is hard”.

We need to stop a system that falsely forces us to choose between outcomes for children and outcomes for educators. We can have both. And yes, that will cost money. We also need to stop worrying about asking for the actual level of funding it will require to do this properly. Generations upon generations have failed to value the “women’s work” of supporting children’s learning and wellbeing. We can make that change, and we can demand whatever it costs to implement a system that has flourishing children supported by well-paid, well-resourced and well-valued educators.

We need to stand up for those educators when they cannot do so, and we need to acknowledge that we can’t do good for children if we don’t do good for educators.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

3 replies on ““For the love of it”: Educators, women’s work and advocacy”

Thanks for this powerful essay, Liam. For the record, Community Child Care (Vic) and Australian Community Children’s Services did stand firm and argued strenuously to keep 24 hours of subsidised care. Unfortunately, other peak bodies thought they could negotiate with the Government on that issue and look where it has taken us – children from our poorest, and potentially most vulnerable, families are now even more disadvantaged. More than 8 years ago, the community-owned, not-for-profit service I work for decided that we couldn’t wait for award changes to our educators’ pay and conditions and introduced our own EBA. This has provided, among other things, above award pay rates (including 3% pay increases each year for 8 years), 5 week’s paid annual leave and superannuation @ 13%. Our fees are not exorbitant. It can be done.

Well done to CCC Victoria and ACCS! If only it had been more organisations willing to stand by their principles. Great to hear about your organisation’s approach to wages – while there will be individual examples of success, the overall issue remains the same.

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