Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Three reasons why I shouldn’t be giving this plenary – Innovate ELT talk

Last week’s Innovate ELT conference came, for me, at a time when I’ve been feeling quite out of touch. Regular readers might have noticed the lack of blogging this year, a steady decline from last year. For anyone who doesn’t know, blogging used to be my life, so for this to be the first post in months is weird. My life now is baby and fitting in paid work around naps. Coming to this conference, let alone speaking at it, let alone that talk being a plenary was totally overshadowed by the mammoth task I foresaw in having to do the 3-hour train from Madrid to Barcelona alone with a very active toddler.

So, if the talk I was giving was to be Three Reasons Why I shouldn’t Be Giving This Plenary, I could easily have added a fourth: I’m barely participating in the ELT world at the moment. Oh, and I’m busy keeping on top of where the baby wipes are.

As it turned out, the train journey was a piece of cake, thanks to a combination of Duplo, looking out the window and an amazingly well-timed nap. But, even more to my surprise, the talk I was still prepping the morning of the conference, went well. Amazingly well, in fact. To my utter astonishment, women were coming up to me all night afterwards to tell me how inspired they had felt. That they were going to put in for talks next time after years of thinking better of it, that they had realised they were not achieving the potential they dreamed for themselves and now they knew why.

It was a surprise because the last couple of minutes of the ten minute, no PowerPoint mini-plenary (one of nine during the one-and-a-half day event featuring seven other first-timers like me to an audience of about 180 people) went by in a fog, with me barely registering anything other than that I had missed out a part of it. It wasn’t until someone told me later that people had actually cheered at the end that I had any idea.

That’s a far cry from the IATEFL talk, Where are the Women in ELT? which had gone well on the day, though to a tiny audience, and resulted in a barrage of abuse from some ELT loudmouths, male egos smarting and totally unaware of their own privilege. I have semi-quietly carried on with the counting of male:female plenaries at conferences world-wide anyway, for seven months wondering why I was bothering. And mostly out of a sense of “we said we would, so we had better” putting together a list of Women Speakers in ELT with Russ, to some success but no great attention. So the reaction to this talk came completely unexpectedly but, most importantly, from those the talk was really meant for: women in ELT.

It’s been enough to re-invigorate me and I think I’ve tapped into something that goes unspoken and maybe unnoticed in this industry. Something that needs following up. And I have an idea I’m pretty excited about — two really. It needs a little more thought and then I’ll share it here. When I’ve located the baby wipes.

My only regret now is that it wasn’t recorded as I fear it loses something in the transcript below. But mostly because I would have loved to hear those cheers! 🙂


First up. I’d like you all to know that it wasn’t my idea to apply to do this plenary. It never would have occurred to me to submit a plenary talk. In fact, when it was suggested to me, without even thinking too hard, I immediately came up with three reasons it was a ridiculous idea.

Starting with … well… None of you have heard of me, right? I can’t give a plenary, I said. I’m not a big enough name.

And that’s only to be expected since my background is 12 years or so teaching, 4 or 5 years materials writing – Graded Readers that my royalty statements suggest no-one would have heard of me from. I’ve run summer schools in the UK for years and I have a blog — Simple English.

As Duncan said last night, plenary speakers are usually big names, especially at the high profile events. We all know them, these people that open and close conferences, South America one week, Algeria the next. I can tell you exactly who the big names in ELT are because last year I did an IATEFL talk called Where are the Women in ELT? with Russ Mayne — a very controversial talk as it turned out.

Part of the research the talk was based on was a survey of 520 people. We asked them who they thought of first when they thought of big names in ELT. You’ll know all these names I expect. In reverse order, the top ten are: Jack Richards, Ray Murphy, David Crystal, Stephen Krashen, Penny Ur,  Adrian Underhill, Michael Swan, Jim Scrivener, Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury

That top ten are mostly men. Penny Ur, the lone female that people thought of when they thought of big names. And when we looked at the next ten, eight were men and two were women. So not only am I not a big enough name, it seems statistically unlikely I’ll become one. Maybe this would help?


Even with the beard though, I wasn’t convinced I should be doing a plenary. I don’t have a big enough topic, I said. Graded Readers might be big news on my bookshelf but they’re not conference leading stuff. Summer school? I can tell you about a teacher that peed out of his bedroom window. I can tell you why you don’t want to be the on duty first aider when a kid spills hot tea … on his foreskin. But again, not really big ticket plenary stuff. What am I going to talk about? I asked. Gender equality in ELT? Bias against women in a profession that’s 60% women; am I going to talk about that?

For the IATEFL talk, we also counted male vs female plenary speakers and for the last 7 months I’ve been laboriously doing it again. Let me tell you how much I hate doing it.  Every month, on the last Sunday of the month, I go through a calendar of conferences and click on every conference and find where the plenary speakers are buried and copy those details over. May had so many conferences I had to do it in four goes. But no-one else is doing it, so I have to. Last year, with rougher figures to draw conclusions from, it looked like 59% of the plenary slots worldwide were going to men, and that is now 57%. That’s a reversal of the 60/40 make up of the industry, but it seems to be improving, perhaps thanks to The Fair List. And it’s not an overwhelming majority of men.

Not like that top ten names people thought of first. Only 10% of them were women, 15% if you count the top 20.

So, despite doing almost half of the plenaries at conferences, women are not as well represented in people’s minds. Women’s achievements are not as well remembered as men’s perhaps. After the talk, we were criticised for dismissing women’s achievements, as we had made up 520 people’s survey answers!

Another criticism was that ELT isn’t all about plenaries. And it’s true. I noticed that when a magazine, ET Pro had a big anniversary edition, 50th I think [It was actually the 100th], on the cover were four men’s names, big names in ELT. No women. The editors told me it was an “oversight.” Why does that oversight affect women, not men? And isn’t the casual ease with which women were overlooked, almost worse than if they were deliberately left out? We are so sure we’re not biased that we aren’t on our guard.

The ELTons, the British Council Awards for Innovation in ELT have had a Lifetime Achievement Award for the last five years, this year will be the sixth. That award has gone to a man three times, a female once and once to a woman that shared it with her male partner.

After IATEFL, one blogger described me as ably assisting Russ with his talk. His talk. His assistant. Another oversight?

This year, Russ and I wanted to set up a database of women speakers in ELT. We invited nominations and self-nominations. We got about 30 people, maximum 40 writing to us. We got so few names we almost couldn’t put a list out. In the end, I went through the conferences I was already laboriously counting and gave myself another tedious piece of admin. I found the women who are already giving plenaries and put them on the list. That did lead to people making more suggestions, which was good. People would write to me in shock that I hadn’t got so and so on the list. And I would say “Yes, it IS strange that no-one nominated her, isn’t it?” More oversights?

We do need to be on our guard because the bias is unconscious and we don’t like to admit we have it. I have it, we all have it. A non ELT related example. The other day I dropped my one year old off at nursery. I handed him over to the woman and I noticed a young man, about 23 or so playing with some of the younger babies. I thought “How nice that one of the parents has stayed to play with the kids.” Later, I realised he wasn’t a parent. Of course, he worked there. But to me, nursery workers are women. It seems nonsensical to think there is no gender bias in ELT when there is one in everything else in the world.

**Unfortunately, I missed out the following part of the talk**
[**My third reason for not wanting to do this talk, I admit, was a bit more cowardly. What if people don’t like what I have to say, I said. Look what happened last time!

After the IATEFL talk I, not Russ, had my character and motivation attacked on FB by three big names. Three men said things they had had the chance to say to my face, but chose to say on FB instead. One said, I quote: “it was embarrassing for Nicola because it came across as barely concealed desperate desire for […] ‘stardom’.  And when I pointed out that Russ was not being attacked in the same way, I was told not to engage in “pleading for special considerations.” That’s what happens when someone at the bottom speaks out against those at the top. You’re attacked, put in your place. How dare you try to upset the power balance from down there, without this?


After I queried why ET Pro  hadn’t been able to think of any women for their celebratory issue, quite a few people on Twitter made suggestions. But, one man, one of the three from before and one of those cover names, and one woman wrote to Russ, yes to Russ, not me, to complain I was speaking out of turn. That’s what happens when someone from the bottom speaks out against people at the top. You’re spoken about, not to, dismissed, not engaged with.**]

We still need to look at why women are more likely to be in the audience than headlining events, in the pages but not on the front cover, in the background but not the first names that come to mind. If grassroots means the ordinary people that make up the majority of an organisation, in ELT, that’s women — at 60% at least of the industry. There’s a little way to go before the grassroots are properly represented at the top on the conference circuit but a long way to go before we’re properly represented in the most important place – people’s minds..

The three reasons I gave for not wanting to do a plenary are precisely why a grassroots conference is the perfect place. Big name – not important. Big topic – turns out I did have one. Unpopular with those at the top – good!

But the real reason I should be giving this plenary and should have put myself forward straight away was the very fact I immediately tried to argue why I shouldn’t do it. That is a typical thing women do: imposter syndrome.

There’s a statistic from a Hewlett-Packard internal report that states that men will apply for a job when they meet 60% of the position’s qualifications while women rarely apply without meeting 100% of the criteria.

When Russ and I asked for nominations for the Women speakers list, only about 15 women self-nominated. Imposter syndrome?

I realised, after hearing myself explain why I shouldn’t be doing a plenary, that a man would not have argued that he shouldn’t be doing it.

So I want to say: Women, if we think we’ve got 60% of the goods, we have to put ourselves forward and stop finding reasons not to. And men, realise we might need extra encouragement to do it. And people at the top, look around and ask yourself if everyone doesn’t look a bit too much like this.


And, everyone, ask yourselves what you can do about it if they do because that is a responsibility we all share.






17 comments on “Three reasons why I shouldn’t be giving this plenary – Innovate ELT talk

  1. Zhenya
    May 16, 2016

    Hi Nicola

    Just decided to drop a line and say that you are a true inspiration to me: in writing, in ELT, in being a woman in ELT. Thank you for the great work you are doing. And keep writing, when you can. Cheers from Ukraine! Zhenya

    • Nicola
      May 16, 2016

      Aww, thanks! That’s a really lovely thing to hear 🙂

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  3. Emma Louise Pratt
    May 27, 2016

    Nicola, I really enjoyed your talk at the conference. I was tired, sitting down in the upper garden under a tree and frankly, I tell you, I was planning to zone out . But your talk got my ears pricking up and my colleague digging me in the ribs.

    That very morning, after giving my talk and fielding a few questions over coffee, I had said to my colleague that I felt like a fraud – that I was still trying to figure stuff out myself (despite my 21 years in Education). I don’t have a lot of letters after my name because I’d been supporting a partner as he began a business, raising a family and bloody working my arse off. She had replied “Emma, that’s a real thing you know. It’s called imposter syndrome”.

    It got me thinking of the many many ways women don’t put themselves forward.
    As a practising artist, confidence, or the lack of it has afflicked me for years. I’ve managed to move forward and through it now, but marvel sometimes at what I could have been achieving earlier if I hadn’t had a problem with speaking out and putting my work out there with bravado, like the twenty something guys I see.

    But then, maybe I just didn’t crave that kind of recognition. It wasn’t part of my make up. That I was working in, through, and out of another space entirely. That sadly, goes unrecognised.

    A fellow New Zealander who I had the pleasure of growing up with, is a cartoonist and author. Sarah Laing has expressed her frustration as a woman raising kids and trying to do “stuff” – I’ll put her blog here:

    Go well, I hope to hear you speak again.

    • Nicola
      May 27, 2016

      Thanks so much for this comment. The stories behind women’s career and choices are endlessly fascinating to me. I do think men have the same doubts but they just seem to let it motivate their choices less. And I am honoured to have snapped you out of end of conference zone out 🙂 I get exactly the same way — though these days my concentration span is terrible for almost everything!

  4. Clare
    May 31, 2016

    I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Innovate ELT and now I really wish I had been there! Your talk is very encouraging and inspiring. And I think it perhaps is important to highlight, as you have done, that at least some of the ‘blame’ (too strong a word?) may lie within us women ourselves; if we don’t self-promote, then we can’t expect others to always do it for us, can we? So thanks for making this point far more eloquently than I could have! Keep up the good work, and hope you find the wet-wipes soon! 😉
    Best wishes

    • Nicola
      June 1, 2016

      Thanks Clare! I know what you mean about “blame” being the wrong word. I think putting yourself forward is a good thing for anyone, but there is some evidence/thinking that women get penalised for being seen as “ambitious” or “pushy” etc so that puts women off doing things they see as self promotion.

      Kind of Catch -22. But just doing things you’re good at as its own reward and promoting it is a slightly different thing – not that either of them are the wrong thing to do. But it is society as a whole that needs educating if women are not to be viewed differently than men for doing the same thing and there is only so much of that educational work women should or can do.

      • Clare
        June 30, 2016

        Yes Nicola! I agree! Sorry for the slow response. I was wondering about concrete ideas / steps that might be good to share with women in difficult situations (wanting to self-promote but not feeling able to due to male-dominated context). – Apart from just ‘do it’, I mean! 😉

      • Nicola
        June 30, 2016

        I don’t know! I am planning to read Lean Out though which might have ideas. But maybe this is up to men, to champion women more and to realise as they put themselves forward that they might be adding to the noise that handicaps women from doing the same because to do it might reflect badly on them.

      • Clare
        July 1, 2016

        I don’t know “Lean Out” … but will check it out… thanks for the tip!

      • Clare
        July 28, 2016

        I’ve just seen this, which also links to your topic:

  5. helenwaldron
    June 4, 2016

    EFL is a business and applying management-speak, IATEFL for me clearly displays the features of a “leader-member exchange:” This describes a type of organisation where you either toe the line and (aspire to) join the inner clique or you are shunned, even bullied out.

    So well done to you for not being cowed by the abuse. I really admire individuals like you and Paul Walsh who stand up to the bullies who seem desperate to retain the status quo.

    But also stay generous when you are accepted into the inner circle. Change is always run the corner.

    • Nicola
      June 6, 2016

      The stuff I am talking about here didn’t actually happen at IATEFL itself, or even on their page, but on someone’s FB page. That those people are also IATEFL members isn’t necessarily a mark against IATEFL though I do think any organisation that’s been around a long time gets a bit entrenched and its members are part of why that is. There’s safety in preserving the order of things, after all. I think the resistance to change is also partly because of a refusal to see how things are, or an insistence than change happens organically because everyone is so decent they couldn’t possibly be part of it. They can’t see that the changes that happened before them, were triggered by push back and speaking out and action and they are just floating in the calm waters afterwards.

  6. Clare
    July 28, 2016

    I’ve just seen this, which links to your topic: (IRONIC!)

    • Nicola
      September 11, 2016

      That’s so brilliant and so horribly, eerily true.

    • Nicola
      September 11, 2016

      Brilliant and so horribly, eerily true.

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