For everyone Taking a gander at gender

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 2 years ago.
  • 14 Dec 2021
Bec Spink (left) and Jess Duncan (right). Photos: The Age, Meredith O'Shea.

As awareness around gender issues grows, and the #MeToo movement does its work, it is clear that young people are leading the pack when it comes to understanding and respecting diversity and equality, and schools have a role to play in that.

While Spensley Street Primary School in Clifton Hill is advanced when it comes to gender issues, principal Bec Spink has nonetheless experienced everyday sexism, especially as a young principal. “Being young and female, I’m constantly having to have that conversation with people. Say, a contractor comes into the school and I’m standing there with my assistant principal, who is a male – it’s happened a few times that they automatically start talking to him. My assistant is a champion of equality, so he straight away tells them. But I’ve experienced that on a number of occasions. There is still a ‘boys club’ mentality at a systemic level.”

Bec is quick to add that she has been lucky. “I’ve inherited the most inclusive school, due to the work of previous leaders and staff, in terms of gender inclusion and cultural diversity and support for the LGBTQIA+ community.”

In promoting gender equity among staff, they also look at the “simple things”, she says. “For example, minute-taking at meetings is always shared – generally those jobs fall to women, but we make sure our male colleagues do them as much as the female. And staffroom duty, washing the tea towels, washing-up duty. Those jobs often fall to an admin person, who is more often than not female. And it’s not hierarchical here either, so I do the dishes as much as an admin person.”

Among its initiatives, the school has had an all-gender toilet for a few years now. It has also removed binary terms for student leadership positions, so they are now simply referred to as ‘student leaders’. “We have nonbinary and transgender students, and we don’t want to exclude those kids. We are constantly ensuring diversity. It’s about creating a safe space.”

Jennings is calling on employers to create safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces, free of harassment.

Bec believes in the importance of stepping up. “One of the things I’ve tried to develop in my leadership career is having the confidence to speak up. Even now, it can be hard with other principals in big meetings. I think one of the things that’s helped me is having mentors who have championed my leadership.”

Bec has deliberately cultivated supportive relationships. Moving from New South Wales to Melbourne as a young teacher, and not knowing anyone here, she had to learn to “put herself out there”, which hasn’t always been easy. But her involvement in education networks and meet-up groups has led her to connect with a group of teachers and leaders who provide ongoing support.

While attending an education conference in Adelaide, she made links with a group of women leaders who together formed a vital network, she says. “It’s about women educators supporting other women, and those five women are my go-tos. Every time I have gone for a job, they have given me advice and looked over my application.”

While Bec has male friends who are feminists, she feels there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by the recent behaviour of some federal politicians. “It feels as though we are still in the dark ages sometimes,” she says.

“Look at what Grace Tame is enduring – this bullying. The fact that this is still happening in our world baffles me. I hope the kids at Spensley Street know a different world when they grow up.”

Bec is a member of the Department of Education’s Stakeholder Reference Group on gender. New legislation means that a public entity now has an obligation to conduct a gender audit, set targets based on that audit, report on progress, and publish this information on their website.

The AEU already has several good practices in place regarding inclusion and equity, but has recently set further targets for achieving best practice on workplace flexibility, intersectionality, and minimising discrimination against all those who identify as women or as gender non-conforming/non-binary. For the first time, the log of claims for the next Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA) includes gendered violence leave.

All of this follows on from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jennings’s 2020 Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, which found that two in five women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Jennings is calling on employers to create safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces, free of harassment. This is a shift from the existing reactive model, which responds to individual complaints, to a proactive model, which relies on positive action from employers.

This is something Jess Duncan, Grade 3 and 4 teacher and team leader at Thornbury Primary School, is working towards. Jess has run professional learning sessions on gender inclusion for the staff, and she is co-creator of the school’s gender inclusion policy.

In a one-hour staff PD on gendered violence in Australia, Jess made the links between violence and suicide.

“It focuses on how teachers behave around students,” she explains, “making sure they are inclusive and use non-gendered language. Not saying things like ‘Hey, guys’, for example. Being educated around the different genders, and how to treat transgender students. Ensuring they are feminist in their subjects – so, if it’s in sport, for example, they highlight female athletes, and in science and maths too.”

“I realised that the education system had drastically failed me by not telling me about feminism.”

“It was a pretty glum PD, because there was a lot of grim data, but then we brainstormed ways to help change those outcomes. We asked staff questions like: ‘How many girls in your class will be involved in a violent relationship? How many boys in your class will be impacted by suicide?’

“We realised we have to do the work to make the change, to unlearn the gender biases and the assumed gender roles and the unconscious bias.”

Jess joined Thornbury PS two years ago and admits it was “already pretty progressive”, having become a Respectful Relationships lead school, among other initiatives. “So, the PD for that gender inclusion policy didn’t come out of nowhere,” she says. “I had also facilitated sessions about violence in the schoolyard.”

She ran sessions with students to discuss where it’s unsafe in the playground and shifted the placement of yard duty staff. The school also developed a new way of recording any incidents on Compass and found that 95% of gendered violence was perpetrated by boys.

“A large percentage of violence is coming from just a few boys, so we are tagging education support staff to those boys so they can look out for them.”

Jess has been interested in gender issues since she saw a post from the AEU women’s officer six years ago.

“I started learning about the data on gender. I had never been taught about inequality. It took me to the age of 24 to realise the impact that gender had had on my life and on the people around me. I realised that the education system had drastically failed me by not telling me about feminism. When I realised that, I didn’t want to fail my students in that way. It became a real passion.”

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