Possibilities for Protagonists – opportunities for our young women

Reading through the recent speech made by Elizabeth Broderick, delivered at the National Press Club, on September 2nd, titled “Creating a more gender equal world: Reflecting on 8 years as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner”, I was struck by one key phrase:

“Emily and June and the good women and men who support them are protagonists, not passive recipients – shaping the solutions that work for their community, their way.”

Elizabeth was discussing the actions of two Aboriginal women from the Kimberly, Emily and June, who took action after 10 suicides in their community, as powerful advocates for change, refusing to wait for the wheels of dominant culture bureaucracy to turn their way.

My reflections soon turned, as they often to, to how this pondering was relevant to the world of education and care. I thought about the girls in our education and care settings, and what opportunities exist for them to be protagonists, not passive recipients. I wondered how all our children, but especially our girls, have opportunities to shape solutions that work for their community, their way.

There have been some rich recent discussions about the value of risk and challenge in children’s environments. Within our thinking on risk and challenge, how do we determine the set-up of environments – are our “risky” spaces set up by women primarily for the purpose of challenging and engaging boys?

What opportunities exist for our girls to be protagonists and take risks – not just in terms of environments, but also with their words, their play, their role within their community? In many parts of the world, it is far more risky to speak up and speak out as a woman – have we considered that many of our children come from these parts of the world? Or have we considered the different family dynamics our children come from? Perhaps our education and care services are one of the few places where our girls are exposed to vibrant women, with educated opinions, who aren’t afraid to share them?

I pondered on the examples of the female and the feminine in education and care settings. I thought about how all our children are exposed to far more of the feminine than the masculine in their settings, and how, for the most part, the “feminine” takes on a very CIS normative form. Wilfred Peterson famously said “our children are watching us live, and what we are shouts louder than anything we can say” – what if what we “are” as a staff team is a group of nice, calm ladies, who go about our days in a care taking fashion – ensuring the needs of others are met? Do we all present in a similar way? Our hair length, our body size and shape?

Reflecting led me to think about the presence (or absence) of living examples of advocacy, decision making and power and control for our girls during their days in education and care.

Do our girls see that ladies who wear heels and work on computers are those that have power and make a difference, while ladies who work at childcare exist only to serve and play? When Mum drops her daughter at childcare to go to work, what message is being sent about the value of the care we provide as work? Is education and care only a place where those with a soft spot for children do favours for women who go out to do the “real” work? We, of course, know it is far more nuanced than that, but do our girls?

I thought long and hard about the examples of female relationship that are modelled to our children – how often do educators espouse the values of inclusion, tolerance and working together to children, only to turn around and lambaste a co-worker in the “privacy” of the shared staff space, or when rooms combine at the end of the day. Again, our girls are watching us live – what messages are we sending when our words say one thing in one environment, and our actions say another thing in a different space.

What images do we hold up to children and say “this is what it means to be female” – in our picture books, our actions, and our staff team composition? What implicit and explicit messages do we send when we “do” the hair of the girls and not the boys? When we have incursions, are all our dancers and artists female, and our police force members and reptile educators male? Do we bring in Jane for Zumba and John for soccer?

So – what then are some practical steps educators and services can take to guide our girls to be protagonists, not passive recipients?

  • Surround them with examples of powerful women – picture books like “The Worst Princess” by Anna Kemp and “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon” by Patty Lovell are a great place to start
  • When setting up play experiences, ensure that the gender input is equal – consider having the children direct the set-up of equipment, and in this set up, that the children doing the directing come from both genders
  • Educator awareness– where are the powerful women within your community? Examples of women making lasting impact and change. Examples of women subverting the norms – can we ask the SES volunteers to visit to ensure that there is equal representation in their teams? When choosing incursion providers, being mindful that not all our “sports” presenters are male, for example
  • Critical thinking – as women within the service, how do we view ourselves and our roles? As males within the service, how do we position ourselves in a way that reinforces gender norms – in an OSHC service for example, are the male staff outside with the children, while the female staff are inside, preparing food and cleaning?
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Freya Lucas

With over 15 years experience working in a variety of Education and Care services, and qualifications in Early Childhood, primary teaching, and Library and Information Management, Freya is currently employed as the Manager of Early Childhood at McArthur. For over 40 years McArthur has provided multi-specialist recruitment services that deliver exceptional career outcomes for candidates and outstanding business results for clients. Passionate about the possibilities that can be ignited in the hearts and minds of educators through connecting them with information and resources, Freya is on a continuing journey of professional learning. Believing that, as Aristotle said, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" Freya is always seeking ways to build and enrich genuine and reciprocal relationships with others, and to foster, facilitate and grow lasting and powerful connections between educators, children, families and communities. Freya was the recipient of the 2013 Jean Arnot Memorial Fellowship for her work “Many spokes, same hub”, which outlined the potential and possibility to be found in deep partnership between Universities, Early Childhood organisations and libraries, and has published articles in the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

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