'ELT events and the gender balance of speakers' by Tessa Woodward

16th September 2017

Been to an ELT event lately? Lots of women teachers there? Quite a few women presenting workshops too? Great! How about the plenary speakers? One woman and four men, you say. Hmmm. That’s a pity!

Why is gender balance at ELT events so important?

Well, let’s go back to basics. Many teachers of EFL/TESOL are women. It is only fair then that there be many women senior academic staff, owners and principals of language schools, and presenters and plenary speakers at ELT events.

Women have talents and ideas aplenty so, if we are not hearing their voices during plenary talks at conferences, we are all missing out on varied, interesting ideas. Presenting work at a conference is a great spur to creativity and thinking in the presenter, as well as to career movement, publication in conference proceedings, promotion etc. If women don’t get or don’t take these chances, they miss out.

Some men who find themselves the only gender represented in a list of plenary speakers or on a speaker panel and then talking to large numbers of women participants, find this an odd experience. ‘Why am I up here on the podium and the women down there in the audience?’

There are plenty of women participants at ELT events. If they are not represented in the balance of speakers in front of them, this may feel demeaning to them and lower their self-confidence.

If there is only one woman on a speaker panel, it becomes easier for her voice to be ignored, or for her to be talked over amongst the, understandable, male camaraderie. More women on the panel? The dynamic changes and the women there may feel more comfortable too.

The more women accept invitations to give workshops and talks, the more practice they get, and the better they will get at it. You have to do workshops and talks to get better at doing them.

Why are ELT event speaker lists sometimes so stuffed full of men?

Some events are evenly balanced. Others, sadly, are not. Why not? I feel there is a bit of a vicious circle going on. If it is usual to see lots of men presenters at events, this imbalance will start to feel ‘normal’. As a result, having more than one woman speaker may, strangely enough, start to feel ‘abnormal.’ Even a ratio of five men to two women speaking can lead people to say, ‘There were loads of women speakers!’

If the same gender and the same ‘names’ come up all the time as speakers, these oft-mentioned people are seen as more important than others. It gets harder for organizers, women or men, to remember other speakers’ names. So, the pool of those up for invitation gets smaller and shallower.

But below is a picture of a very possible and more virtuous circle for plenary and in fact any speakers!

What is being done about this?

In 2013, I set up The Fair List, UK. This is an annual award that celebrates excellence of gender balance in plenary speakers, presenters and speaker panels at ELT events, in the UK. The group supporting the award believes that good gender balance at UK ELT events will ensure wide coverage of relevant topics and a more balanced perspective on the issues affecting both women and men in their professional lives. It will also help to reflect the composition of the UK profession.

From the start The Fair List, UK has had tremendous support from individuals and organisations. One instance of this is that IATEFL, in its desire to celebrate diversity, has offered us a place at conference to hold our awards ceremony. Incidentally, IATEFL has been on The Fair List itself for main conference plenary speakers, for its web conferences and webinars and a large number of IATEFL SIGs have been on it as well!

The Fair List, UK and its mentoring scheme

As well as our annual awards, we have a great web site full of resources at www.thefairlist.org

We have also started a mentoring scheme. We now have a team of talented volunteer mentors waiting to give support to women who are preparing to run workshops, do presentations or become plenary/keynote or panel speakers at UK ELT events, and who would appreciate a bit of support. You can find out more on our Mentoring pages.  

So, if you have a conference presentation coming up, need help with a webinar or are worried about giving a TD session, get in touch with me and, once we have discussed your aims, we can try to fix you up with a mentor.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Tessa Woodward (Founder of The Fair List)

Email: [email protected]

I recently retired as a teacher, teacher trainer and Professional Development Co-ordinator at Hilderstone College, Broadstairs, UK. I edit The Teacher Trainer journal for Pilgrims, Canterbury, UK. I am a Past President and International Ambassador of IATEFL and founded the IATEFL Special Interest Group for Teacher Trainers (now the SIG T Ed/TT).

I have written books and articles for teachers and trainers. The latest one, with Seth Lindstromberg, is Something to Say, (2014, Helbling Languages).

I’m in the middle of another one about teacher development over time. It might see the light of day in 2018 if I and my co-authors are fortunate!