In March of 2019, I attended the United Nations 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW63) in New York City. I was part of a delegate of sixteen women representing Education International (EI). In total, we were 177 union delegates from across the world joined together in New York to ensure that women’s rights were being addressed.The priority theme at UNCSW63 was “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”

It was my last session, and that feeling of anticipation that I used to get when I was going to a demonstration or rally had been building up inside me. Since the difficult negotiations for teachers and public sector workers in Quebec in 2015, when I attended over 12 different rallies and marches against austerity, I had declared myself an activist. Those demonstrations held an energy that was incredible, and almost palpable. This session, entitled Gender Responsive Public Services: Working in Public Services, brought together three incredible women, each contributing in their own way to the fight for women’s rights in the public sector. There was a feeling of empowerment in the room.

Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF-FCE) past president Dianne Woloschuk[1], who is an EI Board member, spoke about the importance of unions for women and the danger of privatization. According to Woloschuk, more women need to be in administrative positions so they can have an impact on educational policies. She insists that we need to change our rhetoric by asking for equal pay for work of equal value. Women’s work is not valued and this needs to change. Jan Hochadel, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Connecticut, also wants women to have a bigger voice in the workplace. She says that women in the public sector are often made to feel guilty when they don’t volunteer their time for the good of their students or their patients. This has to stop. Women have to start putting themselves first. Gloria Mills, who is a public service union leader and President of the European Trade Union Confederation Women’s Committee, and a true powerhouse, said: “Women need to be in the room, not in the corridors doing the research” during collective bargaining and policy making.

These women were passionate and persuasive. I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride and excitement. I felt energized, purposeful, determined, and powerful; this is how solidarity feels. United by a common interest. I was ready to run out into the streets in protest. These women knew how to motivate the crowd and the crowd was reacting. This is what it takes: powerful women motivating other women to be leaders. We need to rise to the occasion!

In a session entitled Impacts of Neoliberalism and Austerity on Women: A North/South Conversation, Misun Woo, Regional Coordinator for the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), says that women have become mere capital and it’s time to build a people movement, a feminist movement. She is preparing for a women’s strike in Asia on International Women’s Day in 2020. I learned about neoliberalism while I was doing my Master’s in Art Education at Concordia University. Neoliberalism has been the trend for the past four decades. Individualism and freedom supersede the welfare of the public or the collective. Capitalism is valued through condemning unions, deregulating industry and financial institutions, and opening up global trade. The neoliberal agenda has turned education into a commodity, increased privatization, created the illusion of choice for parents, implemented performance-related pay and inserted national testing; public education is under attack. It’s important to recognize that neoliberalism is the ruling paradigm in education today and in particular in Western society. The impacts of this overriding paradigm are important and are particularly harmful to women.

Annick Desjardins, lawyer and Executive Assistant to the President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), says that unions are the key to fighting the neoliberal agenda, through collective bargaining, enforcing rights already obtained and lobbying through mobilization and research and in particular, economic research. A well-researched campaign backed up with economic data can promote and value women’s work.

The entire week in New York was filled with personal narratives from powerful women: women fighting for publicly funded daycare, women sharing their stories of resilience in Africa and El Salvador, women asking for gender equality in their church community, women tired of being paid less than their male counterparts, women asking for government policies against sexual harassment, women in Africa asking for quality education, women contributing to society and making a difference, and women leading the way.  These narratives are essential in the journey to equality. In order to move forward, you need strong leadership from the top, partnerships, strong data and gender parity.

However, it was what Gloria Mills said at that last session that encapsulated the UNCSW63 for me: “When women lead, women win!”

Heidi Yetman

[1]Dianne Woloschuk played an important role in my leadership journey. In 2016, while at the CTF-FCE Women’s Forum in Winnipeg, Dianne encouraged me to run for the position of local president in the West Island of Montreal. She told me that women need to have more confidence in their abilities to do the job. I ran, I won, and thus began my career in unionism.