Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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

What to do next about #WomeninELT

I have been quietly updating the male:female plenary count of ELT conferences worldwide for a year now. I tweet it each month, also fairly quietly as I don’t really use Twitter that much these days. It was never really a medium I fully embraced but it is useful as a record. So I can see, and so can you, how the year progressed.

Before we get to that, a little reminder how this counting was organised. Russ and I had done a similar count for our IATEFL talk Where are the Women in ELT? At that time we were counting retrospectively and a lot of information wasn’t available as conference websites don’t always keep pages live after an event has passed. So, beginning in November 2015, I redid it at the end of every month (or thereabouts) for the month ahead. I got the list of events from Tyson Seburn’s brilliantly useful calendar of ELT events. There are a number of caveats.

Not every event will be on that calendar (though I am sure it’s pretty comprehensive) but I added events if I heard about them from another source

  • When you look at it now a lot of the links are dead or go to the next year’s event so have different numbers from the ones I recorded.
  • I will definitely have made some mistakes so allow some margin for error because I am not a bot.
  • Percentages were rounded to the nearest .5% so don’t add up to 100%
  • I included events in the Linguistics field as well as ELT because I figure a) there is overlap b) when people are asked to think of names in ELT they often come up with people that are truly linguistics not ELT so the audience for these events overlaps too.
  • I didn’t take into account online events and I didn’t include ones that looked more like workshops than conferences, ie they lasted a couple of hours, not a day, and were led by one person.
  • Sadly I didn’t take note of the total number of slots going to men vs women until recently.

The results of one year’s counting are:

 75:59:41 male majority:female majority:equal

Number of slots in total 658,  male = 360, female = 298

Or in other words:

42.5%:32.5%:23% male majority:female majority:equal

Slots to men 55%; slots to women 45%

My sense is that it has improved slightly for women’s representation over the year, though more because of losses in equal conferences than from male dominated ones, and we can see that by looking at the tweets embedded below. In the first few months up to winter early 2016 the ratios were 44%:27.5%:27:5%. Over the year both the men and women dominated plenary lineups would fluctuate up and down against the fluctuation in equal conferences and we’ve arrived not so far from where we started. So I think we can say that if ELT is 60:40 female to male based on predictions extrapolated from CELTA and DELTA numbers and IATEFL attendees in 2014, then we can say that the ratio of plenary speakers worldwide is a reversal of that.  Note that there is not a single month where the number of equal or female dominated plenary lineups ever exceeded the male dominated ones.

Not once.

And I suspect it won’t do any time soon.

This makes sense when we see the total number of plenary slots are not equal. They’re only 5% off being equal but they’re 15% off representing the make up of ELT. My guess therefore is that women actually must be the ones who have more power to change this than the men. If ELT is dominated by women then perhaps the committees that book plenary speakers are female. Perhaps the in-house teams in publishers that market books and organise which authors to send here and there are mostly female. Conference attendees, who vote with their ticket buying power, are majority female. If all three of those groups choose to ask why there are more male gurus and more male speakers in the highest profile roles at conferences, maybe there will be a more equal balance.

Some conferences are worse than others. And the ones that are bad are APPALLING.

I am looking at YOU British Council Algeria (2016, 5 male:0 female)

… and YOU TESOL Arabia (2016, 8 male:2 female) … update, 2017 invited speakers (9:7)

… and YOU IATEFL Poland (2016, 7 male:2 female)

… and YOU Adaptive Learning in Practice (2015, 5 male:1 female)

… and YOU English Australia (2016, 5 male:1 female)

and especially YOU MexTESOL (2015 9 male:3 female and 2016, 5 male:1 female) …

… and especially YOU IH Barcelona** with NO equal female and male plenaries in six years and 2016, 3 men: 2 womenupdate, 2017 (2:2)

** Update: IH statement regarding comments I made towards their statement in my ELT Gazette article about gender balance and their conferences in particular: Given recent comments concerning the gender balance of plenary speakers at ELT conferences in general and at the IH BCN ELT conference in particular, we feel that we need to give a formal response to this issue.
The values and policy of IH Barcelona are not to discriminate in terms of gender, race, sexuality or religion. However, it is true to say that in the past, we could have made more effort to consider male / female parity at the ELT Conference, and this is something we will look at more carefully in the future

Jonathan Dykes – Director

Sam Whiteley – Head of Teacher Training

International House Barcelona

There’s another group of course who can make a difference here. Male speakers who accept plenary roles, multiple times a year some of them. They can say “No, thanks for the offer but here are some women I really rate. Try them instead.” And they should unquestionably be doing that if they are looking at a proposed line up like any of the above. I think any man accepting a plenary at an event like those above should be embarrassed to do so. Absolutely ashamed by the idea of having his photo taken afterwards surrounded by women, too uncomfortable to share the event on social media.

As you can imagine when I have suggested the mere idea of turning down such a role I have been met with assurances that it’s not so glamorous, nor so financially gainful, but that they have mortgages to pay and can’t turn work down. Newsflash: women have mortgages and bills to pay too and you can spout on as much as you like about desiring equality but when you have more of something, someone else has less just because the system favours you and you can’t/don’t say no. ELT might not be as glamorous as rock star life but whatever industry you’re in, if you’re in the spotlight, you’re enjoying all the benefits that brings with it. If they’re small, they’re still more than those lower down who are paying their own way to go to conferences.

I am not sure if I can bring myself to carry on counting for the next 12 months. It’s indescribably tedious. I had no idea there were so many events all over the world and would bring up the calendar at the end of each month hoping it was a quiet one. May was so jam-packed I did it in 2 or 3 sessions. Sometimes I break it down into one week chunks and then force on through it as an endurance test knowing it will be over quicker if I can do more than one week.

What I might do is just look at the events on the list that were male heavy last year and see if they have caught on and caught up as we head into 2017. That I think I can force myself to do. It means, of course, that I won’t notice if some of the other conferences switch back to male dominated rather than female or equal. But I think, much as I hate to even partially agree with the people that dismiss plenaries as no big deal and not so far off equal anyway, that yes, actually the situation is probably much improved from further back in the past and that it is going in the right direction and has momentum because of things like the Fair List and a general move towards expecting, and demanding, to see women everywhere we see men. The outliers and the repeat offenders are perhaps the ones to watch as they are entrenched in an outmoded and unacceptable way of thinking and need something like Sauron’s eye relentlessly fixed in their direction.

More pleasant work on #WomeninELT is in the pipeline. Delayed by Brexit and summer and then the fact we’ve moved city this month, I have ideas still on my mind and will talk about them in my next post which, unlike last time I said that, isn’t going to be subject to any more delays. In fact it’s coming out tomorrow 🙂











6 comments on “What to do next about #WomeninELT

  1. helenwaldron
    October 10, 2016

    Good for you, Nicola, for broaching these “difficult” subjects.

    • Nicola
      October 11, 2016

      Thanks Helen!

  2. Scott Thornbury
    October 11, 2016

    Not good enough, but getting better, perhaps.

    Can I just say, though, that if I am invited to give a plenary at a conference I suspect that there are specific reasons why they asked me and not someone else (of whatever gender), and that these reasons are not 100% tied up with my gender. Those reasons may have been something to do with the conference theme. Or they may have been motivated by requests from an organization’s rank-and-file.Or it may be that I live just down the road, so I’m cheap. Therefore, I’m not sure that standing aside and proposing a woman to substitute for me (or another man, for that matter) will necessarily satisfy the conference organizers, for whom those specific reasons may have been a priority. (Arguably, of course, satisfying the conference organizers is of less importance than achieving gender parity).

    I think, though, that there is a more conciliatory, less confrontational approach. Here, for example, is an email exchange I once had with a (female) conference organizer in an unnamed location:


    “Thanks you for your email and invitation. I would of course love to attend your conference.

    Just one thing: I am strongly committed to increasing the visibility of women speakers at ELT conferences, and I am concerned that there are no women plenary speakers on your program (so far).  Without wishing to put unnecessary pressure on you, I would feel happier accepting your invitation if there was at least one woman plenary speaker programmed. I hope you understand my concern.”


    “Thousands of thanks for accepting my invitation. Do you have anyone in mind? I approached [named woman academic] but she said that she would love to come to [named country] but she wouldn’t be available in [named month]. 

    I have just started working again on the conference as I have been awfully busy during the last couple of months. There will be more plenary speakers on the programme and I will do my best to include as many women speakers as possible. I am in the process of contacting potential speakers! You can’t imagine my happiness when I received your message.”

    The net result is that there were two women plenary speakers on the program (one of whom I suggested), along with four men. Not an ideal balance, but a step in the right direction, I think. (Next time, though, I will re-word my email to read: “I would feel happier accepting your invitation if there were at least as many women plenary speakers on the program as there are men.”)

    • Nicola
      October 11, 2016

      Hi Scott,
      Always good to see the considered and balanced responses that come from you. getting better is exactly what I think too, and even, as far as plenaries go, almost there given the same direction of the momentum. And I think your email exchange shows thought and time being given on both sides to the challenge of equalising plenaries and the last amendment is a good template.

      There are other industries with men point blank refusing to be on panels and I don’t know if that was seen as confrontational, though it does rather force the organisers’ hand.
      ““The five of us are arguably the most booked speakers in the conference industry and that gives us a certain amount of power in the conversation,” Dan Gregory [said].

      I think though, the place where I don’t 100% agree is over the reasons people have for booking the speakers they do. A lot of it is habit, some of it is (and I have heard this from two conference organisers now and remain shocked) that publishers are more willing to pay some people’s expenses than others – and by others it seems to mean women. And if there are areas where there are more men with expertise than women we definitely have to ask why that is. How is it possible that an industry dominated by women at the teacher level, is not balanced as it moves up through the specialisations? Tech is one area where it’s massively male skewed but it is well known that there are problems for women entering the tech field and the gender bias is rampant. That is of course filtering through into the tech element as it meets ELT. But the other areas of ELT … the playing field is level you would think for anything language related. The fact the biggest sector in ELT is probably Young Learners and plenty of women are influential in it, yet they are less prominent at guru level. Almost everyone has to teach kids at some point after all.

      I wonder how important the entire plenary thing is anyway. If more conferences invited plenary applications rather than speakers I wonder a) if the big names would apply b) if more women would end up doing it – especially if organisers went out of their way to encourage women to consider doing it c) if anyone would care that the big names weren’t there. In my conference count up I have a long list at the bottom whose pages didn’t seem to list the speakers at all – annoying for me while counting but it made me wonder if those conferences had any trouble selling tickets.

      I think, with the exception of the big international events like IATEFL and TESOL that people tend to choose to go to whatever is local, or not to bother with conferences at all. I never went to one until Seville TESOL in 2013 (?), 13 years after qualifying and only because an employer was paying. I couldn’t even have named anyone in ELT at that point except Jim Scrivener and that was only because his was the book on my CELTA. So, I think the danger is in doing things the way they’ve always been done and that means thinking who the known speakers are, or who is local, which can only result in the same people over and over.

      • Scott Thornbury
        October 11, 2016

        Thanks, Nicola.You say: “I think though, the place where I don’t 100% agree is over the reasons people have for booking the speakers they do.”

        Fair enough, but I think that this is an issue that can be resolved empirically. It wouldn’t take a great deal of effort to design and distribute a short questionnaire in order to find out why conference organizers choose the speakers that they do (and also, perhaps, how many people do they have to ask before they get the final line-up, and what excuses are given for declining). Has anyone done this? If not, it’s time they did – because there’s no mileage to be had in simply speculating on their motives.

        It could be something like this:

        In your last conference how many plenary speakers were there?
        Who chose them?
        On what grounds?
        How many declined/dropped out etc?
        For what reasons?

        (You could, of course, add a question about gender, such as ‘Was gender a factor in your choice’? But it’s unlikely that this will,produce an entirely honest answer, and it might skew the answers to the other questions as well).

  3. Nicola
    October 11, 2016

    We very briefly did this when researching the IATEFL talk. We contacted I think 6 conferences, 2 equal, 2 male dominated, 2 female if I remember rightly and got a rnage of answers. Some that they didn’t know enough female speakers to ask, one admitted they didn’t consider gender, one said anyway the Fair List only applied in the UK. I think there were other answers but I can’t remember and it wasn’t enough to really be of much use in suggesting why. You’re right of course. I’d be fascinated to see how much publishers influenced the whole thing. And I really want to know if it’s actually true women turn down invitations more than men, and if so, what their reasons are, stated at least as it’s hard to know if they’re excuses covering imposter syndrome.Maybe women don’t turn down roles but are more remembered when they do. And as conferences would be self-reporting on that, we might not get the truth but their perception of it. I think some of the digging would end up complex, and finding the organisers to ask would be hard for me to do. But I would love to do it if I have time. Would love it more if someone else did it 🙂

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This entry was posted on October 10, 2016 by in ELT and tagged , .
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