Worlds of Education

Supporting women’s participation and leadership through digital technologies: lessons from the experiences of education unions during Covid-19.

published 8 March 2023 updated 10 March 2023
written by:

The global Covid-19 pandemic significantly impacted women workers. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) documented disproportionate job and income losses suffered by women worldwide during the pandemic: in 2019-2020 alone, women’s employment declined by 4.2% (or 54 million jobs). The situation has put women at greater risk of job loss, poverty, food insecurity, loss of housing, and what is now referred to by UN Women as the shadow pandemic of domestic violence.

Anecdotal evidence suggesting an uptick in women’s engagement in global unions’ activities in response to the forces unleashed by the pandemic prompted Education International to commission a research to investigate women’s lived experiences of union engagement, participation and leadership in education unions during the pandemic [1].

The research also aimed to examine the effectiveness of education unions’ efforts and strategies to advance women's union engagement, participation, and leadership through the use of online technologies between 2020-2022.

We spoke to 50 women union members across different regions of the world. What they told us is particularly insightful in the context of the ongoing 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, where representatives of UN Member States, international and non-governmental organisations, including trade unions, gathered to discuss the role of technological change and education in the digital age to achieve gender equality, and empower all women and girls.

Women’s lived experiences

Women educators and members of Education International member organisations across the EI regions shared their stories about how Covid-19 affected their daily lives as well as their participation in their union activities. The stories they shared provide a stark reminder of the inter-relationship between the personal and the professional, bound up in contextually grounded gender norms and the gender division of labour, that affected how they experienced the pandemic as women and as women union members.

“We had to work a lot more than we used to. In our country, in our realities, women are supposed to do everything related to the household chores and the majority of men wouldn't think about helping or about doing anything in the house.”

Union member in Latin America

At the same time, the stories revealed the tremendous support offered by unions, specifically women’s or gender and equality committees, acts of solidarity and sisterhood, and strategic actions taken by unions to support women’s participation despite the pandemic.

“During the pandemic our annual face-to face roundtable activity stopped and so teachers stayed connected only through the social media like WhatsApp groups, posting issues, sharing news, supporting each other emotionally and psychologically, sharing our experiences with each other. This was like a support network where there was mutual support and solidarity.”

Union member in Africa

The stories attest to the value of union membership for women members especially during the first year of the pandemic as they struggled to make sense of uncertainty and the rapidly changing situation regarding lockdowns, school closures, and health and safety, not to mention implications for their job security and pay. The union meetings, groups and training became solidarity and support networks with other women members.

Education Unions stepping up

The study also highlighted effective strategies that education unions introduced to support diverse women members to stay involved in union activities during the pandemic.

Strengthening digital skills and access to online platforms

“The thing that makes the key difference in terms of participation is access.”

Union member in Europe

Equality and inclusion representatives, gender and women’s committees along with training coordinators immediately stepped up and pivoted to online meetings, training and workshops. This was not easy. They often needed first to provide training on Zoom, and other online platforms and tools, including WhatsApp and Facebook. Many also rallied their unions to offer stipends or credit to union members for data and internet connection.

“I asked the national union Board for money to buy data for women to join because megabits are expensive. When I can give them the data packages, they come forward and participate.”

Union member in Africa

Women union members welcome the hybrid approaches now being adopted by many unions. Unions will need to continue to provide training and access to online spaces especially in countries where networks are not reliable and digital tools are not affordable.

Providing new types of support in response to new challenges

National union leads for gender equality and inclusion or training responded to the additional challenges women members faced during the pandemic by offering new types of training and support.

“One of the things that the pandemic allowed us to focus on is on issues that perhaps were not considered to be so relevant within the training before…So, we are having more workshops on the topics of mental health, occupational health and safety, LGBTQI rights, racial discrimination, climate change, the menopause and many other issues related to us as women activists.”

Union member in North America

Some unions designed and offered on-line training sessions on topics like understanding violence and how to address it, mental health and wellness, and information about human and legal rights and remedies relevant to the pandemic context. Union members also appreciated that training sessions are now being recorded and made available online to suit their own schedules.

“We’re rethinking our learning models from the equalities perspective to provide asynchronous learning opportunities that are very directly related to the practical problem that the individual groups are trying to solve.”

Union member in Europe

Building the evidence base

A few unions are investing in research on the impact of the pandemic on educators and other education union members (see, for example, research activities carried out by the Educational Institute of Scotland). Investing in research on how the pandemic and its ongoing impacts are affecting diverse women educators remains critical for informing union policy and strategic inventions.

“We have seen members creating and doing several types of activities, but we also do not know all their needs, so we suggest having a needs assessment to know what types of activities union members need during this time and also after the pandemic is over.”

Union member in Asia-Pacific

The research makes the case (and provides recommendations) for Education International and education union members to continue to resource and prioritize these three above-mentioned strategies, to enhance women union members' engagement, voice and leadership in a post-COVID world and to contribute to advance the goals and objectives of Education International’s gender equality action plan.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.