Whenever our 2021 Australia of the Year (AOTY) speaks out and makes a stand about injustice, a backlash occurs to keep her in her place. Australian early childhood educators can relate because 91% of the sector are female.
Like many Australian women, they are fed up with systems that have kept them quiet, ignored and poorly treated. There are many parallels between Grace Tame’s treatment by politicians and media and the plight of educators.
This article uses data from a 2021 international study with 51 Australian educators, another 2021 study with six early childhood directors, and publicly available data. The images used in this article illustrate the reaction to one event when Grace made a stand while meeting the Prime Minister the day before Australia Day, 2022. Along with the data, these have been used to explore four of these parallels.
Put them in a box
In her role as AOTY, Grace was expected to perform many pre-defined duties. She did this and more. However, some within politics, media and the public had other expectations of her as a female. According to many of them, she needed to be grateful and polite, even to those who sidelined her.
‘The pay and hours make life with a family difficult to juggle and the stress and requirements detract from the joy of working with children’.
Educators are the 13th lowest-paid workers in Australia. When they ask for fair wages, better working conditions and improved status, they are ignored despite being essential workers. An educator said they needed to be ‘better paid, (with) better recognition’, something they have been requesting for decades (Figure 2).
Meanwhile, the boxes are much different for others in the sector. During the pandemic, some private childcare companies made unprecedented profits in 2020, with the sector turning over $14 billion, with 80% of the revenue coming from tax payers. Some of their CEOs were paid million-dollar salaries, while only two of the biggest six companies paid tax. Despite this, they paid shareholders hundreds of millions of dollars and received Jobkeeper payments from tax payers.
Write the rules
Some commentators believed the rules for Grace as a female AOTY were clear. These apparently included smiling, and being demure and compliant. Instead, she was a fierce warrior for children, supporting victims of child sexual abuse, crafting prevention strategies to keep them safe, and speaking truth to power.
Sadly, on the day Grace was criticised for not complying with their expectations of feminine behaviour, the ABC reported three headlines about women and girls who were missing or killed (Figure 3).
In a similar manner, the rules that educators live by every day are dictated by the government managerial systems. These are written by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA), while compliance sits with the state and territory authorities.
Educators find themselves spending extraordinary amounts of time proving they are doing their job. Ironically, one declared she wanted to spend ‘less (time) proving I am providing quality care and education so I can better provide quality care and education’.
These systems subject educators to hours of unpaid work, poor staff morale, poor wellbeing, micromanagement and burnout. An educator called for ‘less documentation, (and) more realistic guidelines’. A director said
‘When you talk about managerialism – in the last 5 years alone there have been 4 different quality improvement plans released. I find when I finally have time to complete one I am transferring and rewriting another one. It feels never ending when I consider the workload I already have as the director’.
Dangle the carrot
Some media commentators said Grace should have been more gracious and respectful to the Prime Minister to show maturity. Dangling the maturity carrot is undermining, given Grace is one of our youngest AOTY, and she cannot change her age.
In much the same way, educators are constantly told to pursue quality and professionalism in the sector, as a pathway to eventual improvement in status and wages. Dangling the wage and respect carrot is unfair, given educators do not have power to change the award wage and quality is subjective.
Grace’s previous boldness in criticising the Prime Minister was met with a backlash beyond media. The government sidelined Grace by not consulting her when creating strategies to support victims of child sexual abuse, despite her role as spokesperson and her lived experiences.
Similarly, educators are sidelined in curriculum documents, where their strengths go unmentioned. When discussing the need for higher pay, their work was belittled in Parliament, by Senator Leyonhjelm.
From the government, educators said they wanted:
- ‘respect as a professional
- acknowledge(ment of their) important work as early childhood educators
- recognition of the equal value of early childhood educators with primary school educators’
The power of rage and exhaustion
Grace has been fierce in her fight for change. However, rage is exhausting and unsustainable.
Similarly, before the pandemic, educators were struggling to advocate for themselves because they were exhausted and overburdened. Educators were already burning out due to their poor pay and the extreme stress and workloads imposed by the government’s managerial systems.
So, smile and wave ladies, and be grateful you are not being shot.
Educator’s #MeToo moment
Frustration levels continue to mount with the lack of action from governments as the pandemic burden continues. Australian women have understandably lost their patience.
In much the same way, one early childhood director summarised this, saying
‘We have to stand up and really shout out to the policymakers and the government that it’s fine to call on us, great, and we keep answering, but you’d better show us some respect’.
It seems nothing will placate Australian women and keep them silent anymore. They have had enough. Enough boxes, rules, carrots and shame. Enough promises and pretending (Figure 10).
Enough incremental change to help those with power cope (Figure 11). Indeed, ‘no country can truly develop if half its population is left behind’. At the current rate of change, the gender pay gap will be closed in 199 years.
So, ‘no more blah, blah, blah’ for women! ‘No more blah, blah, blah’ for educators! Australian women have climbed out of their boxes, for ‘we are the little girls you couldn’t scare’. As Grace Tame said on Australia Day in 2021, ‘Let’s make some noise, Australia!’.