Skip to content

Right – this calls for immediate discussion! (IATEFL 2018 Reflections Part 2)

May 7, 2018


After IATEFL 2015 I wrote this blog post, reflecting on Russ Mayne and Nicola Prentis’s session about women in ELT. The focus of the post was less about disproportionately high male representation in relatively influential positions in ELT, and more about the fact that these positions have been held by the same men for such a long time. In an attempt to be humorous, I included a few references from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, as the whole idea of people blindly following messianic figures and hanging on their every word seemed relevant. This year, as I write another IATEFL reflection, I can’t help thinking of this other scene from the same film:


Since 2015, the whole issue of women in ELT has become much higher profile, with the Fair List and Equal Voices in ELT campaigning for better representation of women among speakers at ELT conferences, Gender Equality ELT, which raises the profiles of individual women in ELT, and the ELTtoo movement, which seeks to raise awareness of sexual harassment and bullying in the ELT profession. However, there also seems to be a considerable amount of resistance to these types of movements, as I discovered at this year’s IATEFL conference.

The title of Adrian Tennant’s talk was “Labels – Not the Way Forward!” He started by making some fairly uncontroversial statements about labels and labelling, like how the term non-native speaker implies some kind of deficit model, a bit like the word disabled, and that the whole idea of labelling certain groups is socially constructed. It may (or may not) be worth pointing out that disabled is a word that most disabled people prefer other people to use when referring to them, but I could see his general point – labelling and the whole notion of identity politics is highly problematic. However, Adrian then went on to make the rather more contestable claim that positive discrimination always fails, and that we must therefore find alternative ways to ensure that discrimination does not take place in our profession. He then told us that he wanted to propose some kind of competency-based framework that could be used to ensure fair and equal representation, as an alternative to actively promoting certain under-represented or discriminated groups.

Now, I think I can understand Adrian’s argument to some extent. It seems he is uncomfortable with people being given preferential treatment simply because of who they are, rather than what they are capable of doing. Most of the discussion that followed centred around representation among conference presenters, and he seems concerned that increasing the number of women and non-1st language users of English as conference presenters simply because they happen to fall into these categories could have a negative impact on the quality of conference presentations. There is a certain logic to this, but I think it’s worth exploring a bit.

Adrian’s main criticism of labels is that they are socially constructed. This of course means that they are the product of human social interaction and are therefore value-laden. What he didn’t mention though is the fact that the under-representation of certain groups on the conference circuit is also socially constructed. The current situation in ELT, in which the majority of conference presenters are men men, particularly white men, and more specifically white men whose first language is English, and even more precisely white men over 45 whose first language is English, is not a product of genetics or biology. It’s a reflection of the male dominance that exists in most contexts in the world today, and “native speakerism” is undoubtedly a legacy of the imperialistic origins underpinning ELT as a global profession (consider colonialism and the notion that English was historically regarded as the “property” of the colonisers).

So any notion that men are in any way deserving of the privileged positions that they find themselves in is also socially constructed. Adrian surely isn’t saying that the current imbalance is because of some kind of biological difference that naturally makes men better conference speakers than women. Surely not. What he might be saying though is that he doesn’t believe that white men still dominate positions of relative influence in ELT as a result of privilege – that they are where they are on merit. Certainly, he does seem concerned that any affirmative action in favour of women could result in the discrimination of men.

But within the current – socially constructed – reality, men do enjoy a degree of privilege. And I’m saying this as a middle-class, middle-aged white man whose first language is English. However fantastic I may be at my job, it is still the case that being a white native-speaking male has been very useful in allowing me to build a successful career. I probably don’t need to provide examples of how being white and a first-language user of English have been beneficial in terms of finding work and not having to work very hard to prove myself to any students who wanted a “real” English teacher. Being male has also had its advantages, though. I can’t say I’ve ever been hired because I’m a man, but I have been in front of all-male panels where it probably counted in my favour. I’ve also found myself in male-dominated management teams and I know it’s been easier for me to get my point across – or at least have it heard – than it was for my female colleagues. Also, becoming a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace has never been something I’ve had to worry about.

I’m not just talking about things that happened a long time ago, either. Everyday sexism is very much alive and well in ELT. At IATEFL this year I witnessed three instances of what most people would describe as inappropriate behaviour. In one case, a female friend of mine introduced herself to a male representative of a large global publishing company, who she had previously only had email contact with. She went to shake his hand, and he grabbed her and forced her into a hug that she really didn’t want or feel comfortable about. The second time was when a very well-known man in the ELT profession, one of the elder statesmen of the conference circuit, went up to a female presenter at the end of her talk to compliment her – not on the quality or content of her talk, but on how beautiful she looked. And the third one was when a male presenter made a really crass joke about having to end his talk because otherwise the woman at the back of the room would whip him, and that he would actually enjoy it. Yes that actually happened.

Within this context, it doesn’t seem in any way legitimate for men to express concern that they might be in danger of suffering somehow as a result of the increased representation of women. The only men who should feel threatened by the possibility of women getting 50% representation at conferences are the ones who are themselves bad conference speakers, and who therefore shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Of course, Adrian Tennant’s alternative solution – to create a framework that measures the competencies of conference speakers – also seeks to weed out the bad presenters and ensure quality is maintained. But it’s interesting that he is proposing the framework, and presumably wants to have at least some input in deciding what competencies it should include. Based on what though? Based on what he thinks is a good conference speaker? Based on criteria that he thinks are relevant in assessing conference presentation? Or even if he didn’t devise the framework himself, the criteria would have to be based on people’s previous experiences of attending conference, which of course have been dominated by men. You can’t criticise labels for being socially constructed and then propose an alternative that is literally the creation of a construct modelled on existing patriarchal social norms.

Look, I don’t know Adrian Tennant, he seems like a nice enough person, I don’t wish him anything bad and I think he genuinely means well. I just find it odd that a man who has achieved considerable success in the ELT profession – or any man for that matter – should object to action that is already succeeding in increasing the representation of women and challenging sexual harassment in the workplace. You could only do that if you thought that discrimination against women isn’t a thing, or if you thought that you had a better solution than the women who are already doing a pretty good job of addressing the issue. Typical man.

  1. Great post, well said.
    As someone who has been closely involved in putting together speakers for conferences for the last five years (for IATEFL MaWSIG), I find completely laughable the idea that any conference organisers would choose women or NNS (if you’ll pardon the term) that they thought were inferior, just because they were women or NNS. No-one would want to achieve gender or any other kind of balance at the expense of quality, and everyone wants the best speakers for the job. Movements such as the Fair List and Eve are simply waking people up to the possibilities and pushing them a little to cast the net more widely- which is a great thing for the overall quality of ELT conferences.

    • Hi Rachael,
      Yes, I agree. It seems that these new movements are having considerable success in raising the profiles of women and increasing their representation at conferences, and I’m not aware of any perceived decline in quality as a result of this. If anything, casting the net more widely (to use your term) should create the potential for quality to go up.
      Thanks for commenting,

  2. Great post. I think the recent awareness raising initiatives have been very helpful in as Rachael said in pushing conference organisers to think a bit beyond the traditional presenter choices.
    Having said that, it does feel very uncomfortable if you’re asked to speak, or not to speak, at an event because you’re a ‘non-native speaker’, or a woman, or an otherwise underprivileged ELTer. Two examples. After my MaW SIG talk I was approached by a small publisher to adk if I might be interested in writing a book for them. When I asked why, the answer, following a slight hesitation, was that they need more ‘non-native speaker’ authors. Second example: I was recently told by a conference organiser that in the end they couldn’t offer me a plenary spot because they were looking for a woman to balance the line-up. While I’m all in favour of equality, these two situations did make me feel very uncomfortable.
    So to an extent I do feel that being more conscious of the prevalence of native speakerism and sexism in ELT and actively trying to promote the underrepresented groups can be a good thing, there is a fine line between this and just more discrimination, but in the reverse direction.
    Coming back to Adrian’s assertion that positive discrimination doesn’t work, what evidence to support it did he present? I mean, how does he know that giving more opportunities to women presenters, for example, will not help address the ballance?
    I don’t know what Adrian would base his framework on for choosing presenters, but in principle I’d be very much in favour of an objective checklist of desirable skills, qualifications or experiences your ideal presenter should have. Similarly to recruitment, basing your choice on a list of as objectively chosen criteria as possible seems to be the best choice. Having said that, the issue is how we choose these criteria and who does the choosing.

    • Tyson Seburn permalink

      Good points, Marek.

      • Hi Marek,
        To support his claim that positive discrimination doesn’t work, Adrian gave the example of “South Africa”, but didn’t really elaborate. I lived in South Africa for a short time, but long enough to see that affirmative action was indeed problematic. However, as I understand it, this was largely because it led to people being appointed to positions that they were quite clearly unqualified for – as a result of the poor or non-existent educations they had received during the apartheid regime. I don’t think this is comparable to the situation for women in ELT; there are plenty women who are perfectly capable of being very good conference presenters, and just need the opportunity and perhaps a little reassurance that it isn’t (or needn’t be) a male-dominated pursuit.
        I can understand how the examples you gave made you feel uncomfortable. Personally though, I wouldn’t have a problem being told I wasn’t being selected to present at a conference because of my gender, or my first language for that matter. I’ve benefited enough from these aspects of my identity in the past, so I don’t mind giving way to someone else now and again in the interests of equality. I realise not every man/native speaker will feel this way, but I do think it’s something we should at least reflect on before claiming that WE are being discriminated against.
        Thanks for your comment,

    • I’m not going to disagree with the sentiments expressed here, but would offer a word of caution. As someone who has organised over 20 conferences / training days (and attended many more) I am not sure about “an objective checklist of desirable skills, qualifications or experiences your ideal presenter should have.”
      I have been fortunate enough to be able to give many people their first taste of presenting and on occasion have taken chances on people – teachers who almost certainly wouldn’t fulfil a set of criteria that deals with a global, social issue. For example, how do you create such a checklist to encompass plenaries at IATEFL say, and a local event for 20 Czech primary school teachers?
      Such a task would be a huge waste of time.
      But to only have a checklist for ‘big’ events could lessen the value (and they are very valuable) of smaller ones. Got 300 people coming, got him doing a plenary, and her*, but sorry the local teachers and trainers on the undercard don’t tick enough boxes so you can’t put an institution/publisher/sponsor logo on there. (*yes the sequencing of gender pronouns was deliberate).
      Equality, how to create and maintain it IS a very important discussion. But as Steve alludes to, asking turkeys what they think of Christmas and how to ‘fix’ it is unlikely to work. And quick fixes almost never do, which is what a checklist idea feels like.

      • Aaaahhhh
        Pressed the wrong button and posted!

        Wanted to add the following too

        Such a task would be a huge waste of time.
        It might be possible to do something for the ‘big’ events, but such a list would likely only create a new steel ceiling, keeping those in ‘power’, in power. Especially if the checklist was written by those already above the glass one.

      • Hi Dave,
        Thanks for your comments. I think that’s a very good point about reinforcing the glass ceiling if the framework is developed by people who are already in privileged positions. Adrian did say “I would like to propose a framework”, which suggests that he wants to at least have considerable input in it.
        Re. your point about how a competency-based set of criteria would work in practice, I am not a conference organiser but yes, I can see how it would be really difficult to implement and could lead to conferences losing their identity/uniqueness. If all conferences were expected to use the same framework, it might simply increase the probability that existing conference speakers would continue to get invited, and inexperienced speakers wouldn’t be because there would be no evidence that they met the criteria. Also, I presume that someone organising a conference based on the theme of technology in ELT is going to want to use different criteria in selecting speakers than a conference that focuses on ELT in primary classrooms in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example.
        But the main point of my post was really that I don’t understand why anyone feels they can legitimately object to movements that are successfully addressing injustices in the ELT profession. Unless they don’t think there is any injustice…?

  3. Nicola permalink

    This is a very interesting post, especially for anyone who wasn’t at IATEFL (like me) and would otherwise have had not idea. I don’t buy the arguments against positive discrimination, they totally miss the point. Which is that inherent bias means people might miss the excellent women or NNS or whoever else speakers so this only forces them to go out and look for them rather than falling back on the same old, same old. It doesn’t force them to choose inferior, unless, as you say, Adrian means that despite their being more women and more NNS in the pool, they are in some way less able than their white, male NS counterparts.

    As for the three examples, gross.I’m appalled. I try and try in my head to cut these guys some slack but they really just don’t get it. I can perfectly imagine that whip joke and …. ugh, put them out to gardening leave someone please.

    Interesting what Marek says above too – whenever I am asked to do something I just think either, that’s because they know I’m good or it’s up to me to prove I am even if they in their laziness didn’t bother to find out if I am worth asking and are just filling quotas. The person who said that to him about the book is only showing their own ignorance, your writing is in enough places for them to judge it on merit.

    • Nicola permalink


    • Hi Nicola,
      Yes, you make a good point about Marek’s book-writing invitation. It’s not difficult to find loads of examples of Marek’s writing, so if the person says they only want to engage him as a writer because of his first language, and not because of his writing talent, that’s actually rather insulting. But as you say, it’s also missing the point. Nobody is saying that women or non-1st language English speakers should be given opportunities simply because of who they are. The point is that they have previously not been given opportunities because of who they are, and now these opportunities are opening up. I don’t see how that can be a problem.
      I included those three examples just to illustrate that sexism/misogyny/lewd behaviour are very much part and parcel of our profession. I have a feeling that many men in ELT think that there’s no problem, that women have achieved equality, that no action is required. But it’s everywhere, and it’s so institutionalised that we sometimes don’t even notice it.
      Thanks for your comment, and also for your good work in promoting this issue.

  4. Tyson Seburn permalink

    I went through a couple different attitudes throughout reading your post, but ultimately I think anyone who argues that these initiatives will result in the potential for poorer conference speakers because they’re chosen simply for being female or L2+ assumes that in the pool of all conference speakers, there aren’t enough female or L2+ speakers out there who are great to fill in the void made by requiring parity. This, to me, seems obviously ludicrous.

    • Yes Tyson, I agree. But that is kind of the implication, isn’t it? If you resist equal representation it must be because you think the under-represented groups won’t be as good. In the context of this debate though, I would suggest that they can only enrich the content by broadening our perspectives and presenting through different lenses.
      Thanks for commenting,

  5. Excellent. Post, nicely said.

    It shouldn’t be this way, probably, but it seems particularly good when men in ELT notices these kinds of sexist comments and actions which women experience on a regular basis as they go about their work. As I said, it shouldn’t be that way, and I look forward to a point in the future when this doesn’t have to be expained-and indeed when it just doesn’t happen.

    And yes, there’s a lot of false logic doing the rounds about how there are better ways of making sure that there’s more egalitarian conference line-ups. As other folk have said, we are currently implementing ways of doing this-and they seem to be doing rather well!

  6. Excellent post, nicely said.

    It shouldn’t be this way, probably, but it seems particularly good when men in ELT notices these kinds of sexist comments and actions which women experience on a regular basis as they go about their work. As I said, it shouldn’t be that way, and I look forward to a point in the future when this doesn’t have to be expained-and indeed when it just doesn’t happen.

    And yes, there’s a lot of false logic doing the rounds about how there are better ways of making sure that there’s more egalitarian conference line-ups. As other folk have said, we are currently implementing ways of doing this-and they seem to be doing rather well!

    • Hi Sue,
      Yes, everyday sexism is hopefully something that men are starting to become more aware of and react against. The institutionalisation of this type of behaviour means that a lot of men find it hard to get out of old habits. We need to try though, because this sort of thing just shouldn’t be acceptable.
      And yes, you and others are having considerable success in addressing these issues, so please carry on!
      Thanks for visiting,

  7. Andy Hockley permalink

    Very good post, thanks.

    As I understand Adrian’s argument, we are all teachers and to categorise people as native speaker teachers, women teachers etc is inherently divisive. Which in and of itself is obviously true…but does nothing to solve the problem. In an ideal world, yes, we’re all teachers and that would be the only “label” we would need. However, we’re not living in an ideal world, and some of us – white, male, native speaker, etc (like me and Adrian, for a start) have privilege which gets us to places that others don’t get to as easily. I’d like to imagine that i got to where I am today purely on merit, but the truth is that throughout my life and career doors have opened for me in a way that they haven’t for people who don’t have my privilege (and in some cases I will have walked through a door that I didn’t even see was there)

    Until we change the dynamics and get to a place where we can just refer to everyone as teachers, safe in the knowledge that this has a meaning which is the same for everyone, then we have to use labels in order to redress the balance

    • Hi Andy,
      Yes, I think that’s very true – we have to look at where we are, and where we are is far from fair. As long as there is discrimination against women and non-1st language English speakers, and as long as men/1st language English speakers are in positions of relative privilege as a result of who they are, something needs to be done to address that imbalance. Maybe more middle-aged white British men like you and me need to acknowledge our positions and accept that we’ve had it relatively easy (I’m not saying we haven’t worked hard or that we don’t have talent, just that we haven’t had to deal with issues that others have had to deal with).
      Thanks for your comment,

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A reply to Steve Brown’s ‘Right – this calls for immediate discussion! | Salon des Refusés (redux)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: