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The danger of gender imbalance

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Nicola Prentis proves that gender equality in ELT is not yet a reality

Here’s a thought experiment. Close your eyes and picture a room full of EFL teachers at a conference, waiting for the opening plenary to start. In walks the speaker, and the room goes quiet. In your imaginary room, how much of the audience are female? What gender is the speaker?

After a year of counting plenary speakers at ELT conferences worldwide, I can tell you that the reality is that 55 per cent of plenary speakers are male. And that 42 per cent of conferences have more male plenary speakers than women, 32.5 per cent have more women and 23 per cent have equal numbers.

The picture is not uniformly negative. Iatefl, for example, has worked hard to be representative. ‘We try to lead by example,’ president Marjorie Rosenberg told me. ‘Iatefl has supported the Fair List since its inception in 2013. Since 2000 we have had 43 female plenary speakers and 39 men. The Iatefl trustees have more women than men at the moment and this is reflected as well in executive and special interest group committees.’

Catherine Walter, 2016 winner of the ELTons Lifetime Achievement Award, says the situation has improved since she became the first female chair of Iatefl some 25 years ago. She suggested that the overall figures probably conceal ‘wide variations between countries and between organisations.’

Closer examination of the year’s data does suggest this. British Council Algeria this year featured an all-male plenary line up. IH Barcelona hasn’t had an equal mix in any of the six years I could find recorded on its website. Ask to comment, IH Barcelona said, ‘Our conference has earned a reputation for quality and this is the one and only factor we take into consideration with speakers, plenary or otherwise. It might interest you to know that at our 2016 conference we had sixteen talks led by women and nineteen by men. Not quite 50/50 but not far off it.’

And the gender balance of the audience? Based on attendee figures from Iatefl, 60 per cent are female. This is also reflected in the breakdown of (mostly native speaker) Celta and Delta candidates. In the largely non-native global primary and secondary sectors the number is likely to be much higher. So, even if ELT plenaries are on average only 5 per cent off equality (though 15 per cent away from being truly representative), we are yet to reach the stage where gender equality is the default assumption.

So why do conference organisers think this is happening? A common complaint is that it’s harder to get publishers to pay to send female speakers. Another belief is that women are more likely to turn invitations down. Without actual figures on the numbers, we can only speculate. Perhaps women’s refusals are only noticed more than men’s. Or maybe when a man turns down an invitation, it’s assumed that he’s busy.

It is certainly not the case that women don’t put themselves forward – when Innovate ELT invited plenary applications, as opposed to directly inviting speakers, they had a plenary ratio of six female speakers to three male.

Let us go back to the thought experiment. I am going to guess that, in terms of audience, the room in your mind’s eye reflected the stats above. And the gender of the imaginary guru giving the opening plenary? I’d guess male.

In fact, when Leicester University’s Russ Mayne and I surveyed 520 people and asked them to think of ‘big names’ in ELT, only three of the top twenty were women. There’s a long way to go to adjust the bias in the gender we automatically associate with guru status.


Nicola Prentis is a writer based in Girona, Spain for as long as Brexit allows. She has authored graded readers, Clil and speaking skills books, and has contributed to the Wall Street Journal and Cosmo online.


Pic courtesy: E.S.O