If I weren’t so angry, I would have given up.
I feel compromised while sitting in my classroom. Today I’ve been practicing my pedagogy, encouraging the children to question gender stereotypes and consider the importance of equality, inclusion, equity and empathy in human interactions. I introduced new learning philosophies into our classroom – to inspire the girls to feel welcome in construction activities and the boys equally welcome in dramatic play narratives.
Here I am conducting this professional learning work – after three years of tertiary study (and a HECS debt) – for a pay rate that the Fair Work Commission defines as “low-paid”. If I were to take a comparable level of qualifications to a male-dominated industry, I would be earning twice this amount – and perhaps a liveable wage.
94% of the 153,155 early education and care workers in Australia are female. 100% of us are underpaid. While trying to make sense of this blatant and horrendous discrimination, I’ve asked myself many questions. Is it because of the personality profile of these workers that they don’t complain? Are our polite entreaties to politicians ignored because we ask nicely? Is the entire sector underappreciated and underfunded in 2017 Australia? I think yes, on all fronts.
Every professional development conference I attend I am embarrassed to go through the lists provided until I find Australia low down on the different graphs. Compared to other OECD countries our per cent of GDP spend on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is a miserable 0.48%, trailing behind countries like Mexico, Romania and South Korea. Time and time again studies have shown that the return on investment for education for 0 to 5 years outperforms any other form of education – measured in both economic and social success. There’s no other way to look at it: Australia is languishing.
Something that any one of the 843,000 families accessing ECEC knows is that families cannot shoulder the burden of addressing this pay inequality through increase in fees. But something I do know with equal acuity is that my family can no longer subsidise the sector by accepting this low level of professional pay, especially considering the financial impact incurred through lack of a full-time income during my three years of study, and the associated accrual of tertiary debt.
In January this year I wrote an open letter to senator David Leyonhjelm to enlighten him about the role of ECEC educators in our country after he ignorantly and offensively suggested that we were providing some kind of nose-wiping/bouncer service. The letter went viral and I was given the opportunity to talk to media nationally. I never received any response from the senator, except from an indirect comment via media that he thought I was “whiny”.
I will continue to be whiny, alongside my similarly “whiny” colleagues, until there is some justice delivered in our pay dispute. My hope is that not only the economic situation of my family will improve, but that I won’t feel like a hypocrite while espousing gender equality in my classroom – and that none of my strong, social justice-minded preschool girls will ever be dismissed from academic engagement and instead named “whiny” by their own political representative.
The only tool I feel I have left is to stop work in protest. And what better time to stop work than the week of Equal Pay Day, which is the day marking the additional time from the end of the previous financial year that women must work to earn the same as men. And what better time of the day than 3:20pm, which is the time of day when early childhood educators in Australia effectively start working for free because of low professional pay.
On Thursday afternoon we’ll be shaking off the intrinsic selflessness that predominates the women in our sector, and making enough noise to be heard. We will be heard. Like so many issues of progress and humanity facing our country presently, if we keep fighting change will inevitably come – and in time we will be able rebuild our global reputation on how we as a nation support these vital early years.
- Chloe Cant is a Sydney-based early childhood educator