Freelance writer, educator and schools consultant Nicola Prentis asks, ‘Where are all the women in ELT?’


Where are all the women in ELT?

Have you seen that viral video of children being asked to draw a firefighter, a surgeon or a pilot? Sixty-six of the drawings depict men; only five show women. The children are no older than eight, but I bet if you took that exercise out of the primary school classroom and asked a conference hall of ELT professionals to draw a plenary speaker, the results would be similar. And that’s despite the fact that at least 60% of that audience is probably women.

My prediction is based on research Russ Mayne and I conducted for our 2015 IATEFL talk: ‘Where are the women in ELT? We found that 60% of CELTA and DELTA candidates are women, and that IATEFL attendees were 60% female too. Then we used those figures to suppose that the industry as a whole is 60:40 female:male. That’s probably a conservative estimate, as the ratios in mainstream education are likely to be much higher. Then we showed that when over 500 people were surveyed and asked to think of the ‘Big Names in ELT’, nine of the top ten names (and 17 of the top 20) were men, flipping that 60:40 ratio to 10:90 (or 15:85).

‘But women are everywhere in ELT!‘ is the cry I hear every time I raise this issue. And they certainly are if you look at classrooms; training courses; publishing (both in editing and materials writing); and conference workshops and talks, and the audiences who attend them, particularly when it comes to the sphere of Young Learners. But, that only disguises the fact that women are much less likely to be in certain places than others. For example, women in ELT make up only 45% of worldwide plenary speakers according to the conference count I’ve been doing since November 2015.

Some conferences are worse culprits than others. In the last year I have noticed conferences with very imbalanced plenary line-ups in Algeria, the Middle East, Poland, Spain, the UK, Australia and Mexico. The worst of them, presided over by some of those Big Names you all thought of as soon as I mentioned it, had five male plenaries and zero female. Another had eight male plenaries and two female; yet another counted seven men and two women in plenary roles. There was a UK event with five men to one woman. One organisation is showing no sign of improvement from its 2015 line-up of 9:3 men:women with 5:1 in 2016. Another long-term offender hasn’t had equal female and male plenaries in six years, and this year is offering three men and two women, which is actually its most progressive yet.

We don’t see any women in C-suite jobs at the top of those publishing houses that are filled with women, though the CEO of Macmillan Science and Education was a woman, Annette Thomas, until March 2016. Tech companies like Busuu, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Voxy and Babbel also all have male CEOs.

There are women in key influential roles in publishers and tech companies, and conferences do have lots of talks by female speakers, including plenaries. But the most visible roles still go to men. When I completed my TEFL course, I didn’t know any of the names of key people in ELT. I supposed ELT was invented by the man who wrote the methodology book we used on the course. Even when I did an MA in ELT later, I learned the names of more people who shaped ELT, but they were mostly men too. Those men did the work, they deserve recognition, but where were the women? The truth is that 20–30 years ago, when these ELT gurus established themselves, women had less equality than they do today. Times might have changed, but where can we now see the women who should be joining them?

Gender inequality is just as dangerous when it’s the result of casual bias as it is when it’s very obvious or deliberate. I don’t see too much of the latter in ELT, I’m happy to say, but, unfortunately, that’s made it all too easy for us all to be sure ‘That’s not me. I’m not sexist!’ But we all are – even those primary school children – because the society ELT exists in is biased. That’s how we get 520 survey respondents citing 90% male names in the top 10; that’s how we get ELT magazines with more men than women on the cover; that’s why the speakers chosen to entice ticket sales at conferences end up male 55% of the time; that’s how a blogger referred to me as ‘ably assisting’ Russ in the IATEFL talk we jointly researched and gave; that’s why, when the balance of female vs male winners of the ELTons Lifetime Achievement Award was finally redressed with Catherine Walter’s 2016 win, another blogger referenced it with ‘Behind every great man, there’s a great woman’ just because Catherine’s husband happens to be one of that top 10 the survey respondents knew.

What can we do about it?

Women, it is often said, are less likely to put themselves forward and less likely to accept offers when they’re made. I recently did a mini-plenary at Innovate ELT, which is a short, ten-minute talk. I wasn’t going to apply because I felt I wasn’t qualified or suitable to give a plenary talk, and I only changed my mind after someone persuaded me to do it. A statistic from a Hewlett-Packard internal report states that men will apply for a job when they meet 60% of the position’s qualifications, while women tend to apply only if they meet 100%. Thankfully, I recognised my attack of imposter syndrome and applied anyway.

Cindy Gallop, a very vocal campaigner against gender inequality in the tech and advertising fields and CEO of two startups, has blunt advice: ‘Women, stop turning down invitations to speak and making us all look bad.’ My advice for the men, especially the ones who appear at conference after conference in plenary roles, is equally blunt …

Turn some down.

Or at least enquire about the other plenary speakers and let the conference organiser know you won’t speak unless the line-up is equal. Even better, suggest a woman you know and then contact her and encourage her to do it. It’s uncomfortable to make change happen, but it should be just as uncomfortable to be an onlooker to inequality. We can all boycott conferences with majority male plenaries.

In industries where men dominate, like tech and advertising, the gender bias at the top might be less surprising. But in ELT, you’d expect women to permeate all levels. And that brings us back to those children in the classroom. As Cindy Gallop says, you cannot be what you cannot see. How many little girls become firefighters, surgeons and pilots and any other job where the default setting seems to be male, like politicians, judges and astronauts? And how many women in ELT are not being inspired to be the CEOs and gurus of the future?