“They were on fire!” Norberta Heinrichs enthused, describing the energy in the room at her first Women in Negotiations (WIN) workshop. “We created space to allow women to ask questions, acknowledged women’s strengths, and we did an exercise to enable each woman to be respected as a powerful contributor.” By all accounts, they had fun too, especially role-playing negotiations.
In 2016 the AGM made it a BCTF leadership priority to “continue to build the leadership capacity of the union, both provincially and locally, to be prepared for bargaining in 2019 through the provision of training, particularly with a focus to increase the participation of female members.” Twenty-five women teachers of diverse ages, career stages, and backgrounds from across BC were selected and trained to lead WIN workshops on collective agreements, grievances, and bargaining. Collectively they possess “an amazing breadth and depth of experience,” according to Jody Polukoshko, a former facilitator, now a Member-at-Large on the BCTF Executive Committee.
Heinrichs’s goal is “to personally empower women in my workshops.” Mentorship matters. Heinrichs says “I had a rock star suggest I apply to be a WIN facilitator,” referring to Richard Hoover, now retired BCTF Director of Field Service. She feels fortunate to have allies, male and female, show faith in her abilities and capacity, but doesn’t “assume other women have had a similar path.” Fellow WIN facilitator Cindy Hewitt is also determined to help give women a leg up. “It is so exciting to be part of this, “she says, “to have a voice and to enable others to have their voices.”
Would women’s ways of negotiating be different?
All three believe that “it’s the structure, not the people, that is the problem.” Imagining bargaining designed by women, one suggested upending the present structures, flipping our concept of bargaining upside down, basing it on our interests. Another added, “including the voices of those not represented, making it gender neutral, expanding beyond a narrow band of men comfortable in their roles as bargaining experts.” Their conclusion-“Our bargaining teams need to be more inclusive.”
What do women teachers want?
“Why not convene a group of women teachers and ask?” Quite likely job sharing, ways to address violence against women, women’s health and safety, affordable and high-quality childcare, more flexible time, and family care leave to care for sick kids will come up. Hewitt feels “the best time in a workshop is when everyone is sharing their strong personal visions.” Start the conversation in your staff room and hear what comes up. Better salaries for sure!
Barriers women face
Why have women traditionally chosen social justice and professional development over leadership and bargaining within our union? Heinrichs suggests, “Current bargaining structures create barriers for women to get into leadership. It is the process itself and the mystique that one must be an expert that deter women’s involvement.” The model of “proposal-counter-proposal, stay all day and night until it gets settled” is unappealing to women with young families. She’s noticed new teachers who are fearful of taking risks; “for a young woman teacher this is a dangerous cocktail-don’t rock the boat, be perfect, wait for a man to set the stage before you speak.”
Participants’ feedback from one workshop shed light on how women perceive bargaining: “Women are not barred from bargaining but … the perceptions of a combative, competitive, and aggressive process steers them away.” Even in 2017 women seem pressured to fit into a world defined by men. They suggest teachers pay attention at staff and union meetings and ask: “Who speaks? Who decides? Who leads? and Who do people turn to as the voice of authority?”
Past successes provide a solid foundation
Over the BCTF’s 100 years, there was only a brief period, between the 1970s and 1990s, when the number of male and female teachers approached parity. Like an hourglass tipped on its side, the graph shows the widest gaps when our union was born in 1917 and now in 2017.
Interestingly, the period when we came closest to a balance of males and females in our system is when the most collective agreement wins came on issues advanced by the Status of Women Program between 1973 and 1998-maternity, paternity, parenthood, adoption, and compassionate leaves, non-sexist environment, sexual harassment, betterments for TTOCs and part-time teachers, and seniority provisions for teachers who interrupted service to raise their children. In the current context of restored collective agreements and a supportive government promising adequate funding, will teaching again become more attractive to men, or become totally feminized?
What do women teachers want from bargaining in 2019?
With a new round of bargaining on the horizon, people are asking, as voiced by one participant at a fall zone meeting, “What is this WIN? You know, I might be interested in that, how can I get involved?” Inviting a WIN workshop into a local has the potential to ignite new and diverse member engagement, and spark support for what we want next at the bargaining table. “Whenever you meet a woman who has found her voice, she automatically becomes a leader,” says Hewitt. “Once their voices are validated, there’s no stopping them.”
Our BCTF locals can book a WIN workshop online.
This article was written by Marian Dodds and was originally published in the November/December 2017 edition of Teacher magazine.