Border Mail Column Wednesday 16 March 2011
My current working life revolves around education and satisfyingly includes teaching in courses which give students the chance to extend their learning and employment opportunities.
Once again I find that I am the student and this is especially the case with the group I take for Women’s Studies in the Career Education and Employment for Women program at Albury TAFE.
It’s a mixed group with each woman having made the decision to improve and significantly change her life; already after just a few weeks I can see the confidence of each of them grow.
I am always inspired to see access to education facilitate such changes, but women haven’t always had this: something I was reminded of last week when the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day was celebrated.
While equal work for equal pay was highlighted, the main focus of the day was ‘equal access to education, training and science and technology: pathway to decent work for women’.
It’s a pathway I have been very privileged to see women from many backgrounds tread, including my mother who, when just a teenager, finished her education to Year 8 level.
Twenty years after leaving school she completed maths and English courses equivalent to the School Certificate of the time, and then went on to qualify as a registered nurse and midwife.
Completing her midwifery qualification not only involved study, but also moving away from home for almost a year returning on her days off; 35 years ago this definitely wasn’t the norm.
A few years ago I met an Indigenous woman who said she had decided to study because in her words she was at home doing nothing: a bit of an understatement when she was the mother of ten children where it’s hard to imagine any day where this was the case!
She continued her studies and is now a gifted teacher and mentor not only to Indigenous students but to all who come into contact with her.
In my own case I was the first of my generation on both sides of the family to go into tertiary education and at a time when, thanks to the policies of the Whitlam government, my education was free of any fees.
I have never taken that opportunity and the experiences gained for granted; they have set the path for the personal and professional opportunities I have had.
This is not to say that the university path is for everyone: what is important is that people, and especially women who have limited formal education, have access to learning which gives them an equal opportunity not only in the workplace but in the world.
It’s easy to assume that for women in Australia this is straightforward and the norm, but the reality is for some women attitudes to the importance of education have barely shifted since that first International Women’s Day in 1911 when women were still thought to have only enough intellectual capacity to decipher an embroidery pattern or read the latest popular novel.
Interestingly it was the outbreak of World War I which resulted in a major shift in how women’s roles were viewed; however they were soon returned to their ‘rightful place’ as mothers and wives when the men came home from the war, and this was repeated again after World War II.
Admittedly, the opportunity to access education can vary greatly depending on ethnicity and background: the campaign to increase education completion rates among Indigenous people, especially women, is well documented.
But whatever a woman’s past, education is vital in ensuring her future.