Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
At this year’s IATEFL, Russ Mayne and I gave a talk called “Where are the women in ELT?”. It was attended by about 50 people, crammed into a 40 seater room, but has been talked about by twice that many people if the online debates are anything to go by. See Steve Brown’s post following the talk and Scott Thornbury’s reference to it. Healthy public debate was what we expected. Other conversations took place on social media and those were a bit different — at least the ones I saw. This post is about the one that surprised me the most and happened on Facebook after someone who was at the talk posted a photo and a positive comment about the talk.
Reasonable discussion of issues and implications followed, including both male and female commenters, and some suggestions were made of things that could be done to even up the imbalance of gender in worldwide plenary roles. Not everyone agreed with everything said but discussion was impersonal and civilised.
And then this comment was made, by a man, which provides a noteworthy window into what happened next.
What I found interesting was how many of the women in publishing who attended the talk simply felt insulted by it – and rightly so. They are some of the women in ELT, after all. One of them (with whom I had a chat afterwards) felt it had essentially negated both her place in the industry and the work she’d achieved. It’s not all about being a plenary speaker, surely?
I find it interesting that, in a talk titled ‘Where are the women in ELT?‘ women who had been in the talk had not felt able to voice their opinions. Why was that? It wasn’t because we ran out of time with hands still up. Was it down to the often-cited view that women are more hesitant to put themselves forward? Perhaps the women in the room were feeling intimidated or just generally prefer not to speak out in public. I have only heard from women that didn’t feel the talk insulted them so I could only have supposed that none felt this way.
But anyway, should a man be speaking for the women here? I’m fairly sure we didn’t say anything that negated women’s contribution to ELT. In fact, we were saying that despite their massive presence and contribution, it is still the men that people think of first when they think of who the big names are in ELT (which is possibly influenced by who does plenaries but was not given as the only reason for asking the title question).
I won’t go into it in anymore detail without hearing from someone who felt we were insulting them. Will I hear from them?
Maybe not. Here’s one reason why:
Could it be that women worry they might be open to personal attack if they say something not everyone likes?
Surely not. Not in ELT where everyone is so supportive and, as I have described in the Facebook chat about that talk, constructive.
Yet, here is what was flung at me by a well-known ELT male in the rest of that chat (bold added by me).
MAN 2: I quite enjoyed the first half, and there are clearly issues about the continuing patriarchal society we live in, and the lack of female representation in many many areas of life. The idea to have a webpage of female speakers who are out there and samples of their work is also great, and the Fair List’s pressure for greater equality is all good.
However, it became preposterous and I’d suggest embarrassing for those concerned when it got to the top ten most famous section – and particularly to the interpretation of that data. Embarrassing for Russell because last year he was so acute on bad science and the way personal intentions can skew interpretation, but seems to have had a bypass on that front here; embarrassing for Nicola because it came across as barely concealed desperate desire for whatever the limited currency of TEFL ‘stardom’ may bestow on her.
The bottom line is this: whatever you may feel about any of the folk in the top ten, the fact is they are there on the back of their bodies of work. They have written work that resonates with teachers and that has stood the test of time. Nicola suggested that the only way she could ever find herself in that list is to invent a time machine. It’s not. It’s simple. She sits down tomorrow and starts writing a book – or series of books – that in 20 years from now will be a standard. You want the ‘fame’? Go do the long hard hours.
ME: There is an interesting phenomenon, described, I think by Sheryl Sandberg, that when a woman says something it is perceived more negatively than when a man says it, and so is she. Seems like that’s unfortunately relevant here. That interpretation [my interpretation of the reasons the top ten names are who they are] makes sense … and others in publishing have drawn the same conclusion when I’ve mentioned it to them. What other interpretation would you put there?
MAN 2: Can we please try to have the discussion without it being suggested that somehow disagreeing with the person making the interpretation is in somehow a result of their gender? Had it been Russ who made those comments about being cheaper than Scott and keen to get the perceived (but largely actually fictional) benefits of this limited notion of ‘stardom’, I’d [have] been commenting on him instead.
ME: That was a joke! Another thing women [are] less favourably perceived for. I am also not sure I said I was “keen” to be famous — if ELT can be considered to have fame. I pointed out my lesser opportunities as they seem to be.
It seems that a throwaway joke, during the Q&A session (watch the last few minutes of the session to see) following the talk, cost me in the eyes of this guy who was apparently speaking for “plenty” of people. Which is not surprising as women and humour is something that is defined by inherent social misogyny according to studies. Women are not funny, runs the stereotype. Firstly, if women are perceived as less funny than men in general, that suggests it’s more likely that a woman making a joke is seen as being serious. Secondly, if women make a joke it is more likely to be perceived negatively and, probably as a result, women are more likely than men to make a self-deprecating joke.
How many of these “rules” was I breaking by presuming to compare myself to the most well-known man in ELT? Well, one, I made a joke. Two, I made an “arrogant” joke instead of one that played down my abilities like I am “supposed” to do as a female. The fact that people laughed doesn’t seem to matter — at least to this guy and the “plenty” of people who, allegedly, but silently, felt the same.
Then another tribe member chips in:
MAN 3: I do hope, Nicola that you are not engaged in special pleading. The comments here, both positive and negative, reflect equally on both you and Russell.
Except they don’t reflect equally, do they? The (much briefer because he didn’t respond at the time) comments made against Russ were about a perception of his actions i.e. not having presented robust enough science. The comment levelled at me was against my character and motivations. Never mind the fact that we both researched and planned that talk and wrote the survey, so I was neither credited nor blamed for the science and action part. Perhaps the assumption is that I was too busy getting my hair done for my moment in the spotlight while Russ was out there doing science stuff.
MAN 2: …it [the talk] became about how hard it was to break into [the top ten] – and whether you want to hear it or not, there seemed to be barely submerged sub-text that it was particularly hard for YOU to break into. That may not have been the intention; it doesn’t negate the other things you mentioned like it’s hard generally to break into; and it may not be a subtext everyone felt was there. Plenty did, however. […] All I was trying to say was that there was a fairly widely-held perception that this was a sub-text.
Again, we have an accusation against my character. And note that, although it apparently didn’t negate the other things I mentioned, it was more worthy of comment than they were. So, not only am I self-serving and fame hungry, I am underhand about it. Again, once you understand the social forces at play in defining gender, this is not so surprising. In a Fortune magazine cited study into how men and women are reviewed for their performance at work, the women were reviewed with more criticism than the men.
This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.
That’s an incredible difference. I, or any woman Russ might have been speaking with, would have been about 30 something times more likely to be perceived negatively. Gender bias affects all our discourse and the ones that benefit from it are, unsurprisingly, the least able to see it. The voices shouting so loudly, ironically while commenting on a talk about gender bias, were some of the very same “old, white men” that have all the power and privilege in most areas of society. Call them out for it and you get accused of “social pleading”.
Also, “plenty”? Plenty of whom? None of the people I spoke to directly at the time and none that I’ve seen since have commented on my stardom-seeking behaviour. Again, why are “they” letting someone else speak for them? What was notable about this thread was the absence of women once it got aggressive. Maybe “they” are women who didn’t feel it was safe to speak up in case they were shouted down.
I’ve shown this thread to different people, some of whom were present at the talk and some who were not, and the word “bullying” has been used to describe the three men (no 60/40 split here!) who had taken over the conversation at this point. It’s not a term I would use myself as I think it’s used so often it loses its meaning, but also because it implies a victim and I can perfectly well stand up for myself. But I can clearly see how many people, male and female, wouldn’t want to be exposed to this kind of attack online.
As for the actual charge of using the talk as a vehicle for my own stardom, it sounds so ridiculous written down that I almost don’t need to address it. Listening to the talk online should make it obvious how unfounded that view is but, since we’re here and not everyone will watch it, here’s how the (to put it charitably) “misinterpretation” might have occurred: I self-referenced a few times and used a personal example about having a child.
The self-references were meant as a stand-in for anyone like me i.e. female in ELT. For example, it’s more difficult for me to do X than a man. The child-related point, in retrospect, could have been better left out as it wasn’t expressed in a way that sounded relevant and was part of a slide that we’d cut where it might have made more sense. But it hardly marks me as any different from many of the male speakers I see who pepper talks generously with tales of themselves.
And, on further reflection, what exactly does Man 2’s accusation amount to? Ambition? That’s another trait in women that doesn’t correlate with positive reactions. In a study about women who show ambition for political power:
In one study looking at the potential backlash for women seeking to gain political power, Okimoto and Brescoll (2010) found that female politicians who expressed their desire for power were viewed as less competent, less caring and less sensitive than non-power seeking females. These women were less likely to be voted for and sparked feelings of moral outrage in voters. Men did not suffer any negative consequences for their public ambition and expression of power-seeking actually improved perceptions of male politicians in some scenarios.
I’ve not identified those men, although I considered it and am not sure why I haven’t. I pointed out that it was a shame no-one had made these comments to my face, during the talk and they assured me that this was not cowardice and Facebook is a public place. I would call it a semi-public place since only the friends of the person who posted the original post were able to see it. If they think of it as a public forum, it does rather give me permission to put it in an actual public form. Suffice to say these are ELT names you probably know.
Anyone that thinks ELT is all smiley, happy PLNs wants to spend a bit more time on Facebook where the knives are regularly sharpened. Whether the problem is sexism or that is just a facet of a wider aspect of human nature — general unpleasantness — you decide.