Next month will see TEU National Secretary Sharn Riggs step away from her leadership role after 10 years as TEU National Secretary and 30 years of unionism with the tertiary education sector. In the second of a two part conversation for Tertiary Update, we asked Sharn to reflect on her time with TEU and working within tertiary education.
Over the last three decades we have had a union movement in which there were very few women.You infact were one of the few women National Secretaries over the last 20 years. There have been changes in the union movement, and we now see much greater representation, but we could still do more. How do you survive when you are in a space of very few women? Do we need to do more to address that imbalance?
Well, we certainly need more women in leadership jobs and in unions. I was one of only two woman National Secretaries until quite recently. We represent a lot of women in the unions, but it has been the case that we often have mostly men in positions of leadership. And of course there are four women vice-chancellors now, which is interesting that that has kind of shifted. But would they identify themselves as feminists? Would they acknowledge that there were obstacles to themselves and other women getting into those positions? Im not sure. I cant speak for them. But I do think it is hard for any woman being in a leadership role, and anyone who says it isn’t is deluding themselves, because it is hard.
You do get treated differently as a woman, and you do have to muscle your way in. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been as influential in some spaces as I might have been, because that’s not my natural way of working. I started my involvement in the Wellington trade union movement as part of the Wellington Trades Council's Women's Sub-committee – we weren’t even a committee we were a sub-committee. Working in that environment, we had to fight for things like sexual harrassment clauses among male trade unionists who were saying things like ‘girly calendars are the last bastion of joy for an old man, what’s your problem?’, and that kind of thing. So it has been and is hard for women.
But for me, for survival, I have good friends - men and women - who I talk to, and who I engage with, and I’ve worked with some fantastic staff. This union has been really fortunate in the calibre of not just the skills in doing the work, but great personalities, great politics, great engagement in something that has always got to be more than a job. Working in a union is not just a job, it’s a way of life.
As you have lent all your skills and knowledge to countless people over the years, what’s some advice you can give to future leaders within the trade union movement?
It’s lots of things really. Sometimes when I think about myself I think the things I am good at are often the things I am bad at. It’s about being willing to change your mind, willing to listen, to not be fearful of people to see you there as equivocating. Sometimes equivocating can be viewed as a weakness, but I do think it’s important because you can never please everyone. I think the key is not to go about pleasing everyone, which is hard sometimes, but it’s ultimately unmanageable to think you can.
I think you have got to have your own mechanisms for protecting yourself in this space, but the key is to be open, to talk, to be available. Lots of what leadership is, and working within the trade union movement, is talking. It’s not writing treastises, its about conversation. It’s knowing and acknowledging when people are upset and talking it through. It’s making the time to have those conversations that might not resolve everything completely, but being an ear to listen when often people just want to have the opportunty to talk, to have their say, and know that they have a voice.
Part one of our conversation with Sharn can be found here.