Sunday, 18 November 2012

It's a man's world

If I asked you to name the most influential figures in the TEFL world who would you choose? Ellis, Thornbury, Harmer? What about Swan, Scriviner and Underhill?

Any women?
I always thought it was strange that all the 'top' chefs were men, yet cooking was considered women's work. It seems for some reasons that it's OK for women to 'do the cooking' but the true artistry, the 'cuisine' as it were, is produced by men. How did that happen?

To my mind, the EFL world looks similar. Powell (in Byram 2001) wrote in 1986 (though on what evidence I do not know) that "most language teachers in secondary schools in the UK (and many, though not all, other countries) and in language schools worldwide, are female." Byram adds that this rules doesn't follow for universities where men seem to be in the majority.

The places I have worked provide anecdotal evidence that this is true. Women teachers and students have always been the majority. For instance, at my first job, I worked with two female teachers and at company meetings it was clear this was true for most of the other schools (except for the foreign staff). This also held true when I worked in Taiwan. Anywhere where the education was optional, female students always outnumbered male students. Where I work in the UK the majority of the full time teachers are female (8 to 2), but only one of the four senior tutors is. A few years ago when we held an interview for the top job, all five candidates were men. The university I'm currently seconded at has 10 or so English professors but only one who is female. I don't think this is by design, but I do think it's interesting.

A 2012 study (N127 double-blind) found that scientists discriminated against female job applicants, giving them lower ratings in "competence and hireability" than male applicants with identical qualifications. The startling thing about this report is that there was no difference found in ratings between those ranking the applicants. That is, women employers were equally likely to be biased against female applicants as men were.
We know there are differences in the way men and women speak, and there is quite a bit of writing about sexism and gender in EFL materials but less about the actual industry as a whole. if we employ the same arguments English as the Lingua Franca folk apply about the number of NNS of English indicating the need to move away from NS norms, doesn't the number of women, both teachers and students likewise indicate a need for a more equal distribution of influential/prestigious positions in the EFL world?

From 1986 to 1995 an organisation called "women in TEFL" existed with the stated aim of:
giving women in EFL more confidence; improving the status of women teachers of EFL and making sure that they get equal opportunities for promotion; and improving the portrayal of women in language-teaching materials.(Walter & Florent 1989:180)
The organisation held conferences and there was even, at one point a magazine devoted to female TEFL teachers called ETHEl (Byram 2001:231) I have no idea what happened in 1995 to bring an end to the movement, -perhaps everthing became equal then?

So is this just my slant on things or are things really somewhat uneven in the EFL world? I would love to hear your opinions. What's it like where you work? If you know what happened to "women in TEFL" or used to be a member, please get in touch.

2014 update: Potential positive developments in the 'fair list'. One to keep an eye on (Thanks Tyson)





  1. I had a sentence in the original that went something like "You might say Penny Ur but is she on the same level?" Penny Ur is clearly "up there" but putting male/female to one side, if I asked you to name the top people would she be among them?

    1. Yes, probably. Though there's no argument that men, in any number of fields, dominate the perceived upper echelons of the industry, it's women who make up the street-level majority in ours, so much so that at a recent conference I attended, ALL men's washrooms were changed into women's--yes, a funny bit of evidence there.

      I'm sure there isn't too much insight into this phenomenon I can suggest that hasn't already been in the literature, but I do know several women in DoS positions here, though likely not as many as men.

    2. thanks for the comment! Interestig to hear about the men's washrooms. Where did you go to the toilet?

    3. There were two shared washrooms with one toilet it each. Yes, men lined up.

    4. Just reread this all, thanks to the interview on Mike's blog. Note the Fair List since this?

  2. An interesting post and good to see that someone else has noticed ... I wrote a blog post on this myself earlier in the year: - more of a personal perspective, but saying many of the same things.

    Interestingly, since I wrote the post, I've been co-authoring a big new coursebook and have consciously been trying to raise my profile a bit (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, webinars, talks etc), but I still don't think I've got the inclination to put in the same hours and 'push' as "the big boys". I'm looking forward to a long holiday and a bit of gardening at the end of the gruelling writing process, not a big publicity drive!

    1. Yes I just saw your blog! Wish I'd seen it before!

      What do you think about the idea that (looking at the reearh I noted) women might just not be selected on various stages because of an unconscious bias?

      Less likely to get jobs, means less likely to publish papers, less likely to edit journals, less likely to become an "authority" and less likely to be chosen to write books. Death by 1,000 cuts as it were?

    2. I think you'll find that most of the big names in ELT don't have jobs, they're freelance. And if they do have a job (e.g. teaching part-time at a university), then that's not what raises their profile. It's all about being a self starter, going out and finding the opportunities yourself, not being 'selected' or offered opportunities. In my own experience as a freelance writer, publishers will ask you to do the odd talk for them here and there, but the guys who get the profile, actively go and seek out opportunites (conferences, events, etc), then approach their publisher to fund the trips if necessary.

      The academic route is slightly different, where you're talking about university positions, publications in journals etc., but then EAP doesn't really have the big high profile 'names' in the same way ... yet. And actually, if it did, I wonder if those names might be more female anyway (Averil Coxhead, Olwyn Alexander, Julie King, Diane Schmitt ... apologies to anyone obvious I've missed!) Be interesting to see how EAP develops in that area ...

    3. That's a good point!

      Would it be right to say that you think the guys, at the moment, are just more driven and work harder than the woman?

    4. More driven, more pushy, more career-oriented.

      If you look along the spines of the EFL books on your shelves, you'll probably find there are plenty of women who've got as far as publishing materials - I don't think there are any really obstacles and bias there - there are plenty of us working away fairly quietly, getting published and doing the odd bit of promotion around particular books as required by publishers. But what we don't always do is make that next to push into putting ourselves out there and raising our profiles as a 'name'. As Rachael points out, maybe that will start to change as social media etc. make it easier to do that without such a huge disruption to the rest of your life.

    5. Sorry, hit 'enter' too quickly and came out with an odd name there - d'oh!

    6. Hi Ju!

      All good points!

      I do hope to see a female "thornbury" emerge in the next few years though. Perhaps it's the type of material they write? If for example, you write something general which is accessible to new teachers, then you're more likely to have a high profile than a more marginal aspect of TEFL (like say an expert in testing)

  3. Sorry, that didn't come out as a link, but I guess you can cut and paste the URL - or it's from March 2012 if you go through the blog's archive.

  4. It is certainly the case that most of the 'big names' we think of are male. I suspect that Julie hits the nail on the head (or at least one of the nails). Big names, such as Jeremy Harmer, or Ken Wilson, spend an enormous amount of time travelling the world doing presentations and conferences, and, right or wrong, this does not fit so well with many women's lives. Possibly, now that more networking and profile raising can be done online, this will start to shift.
    Of course, there are other issues to do with how women are perceived and perceive themselves...
    Incidentally I know Jill Florent (of Women in TEFL) well- she was my editor on a recent project. She's on twitter @flojill, so might like to comment directly.

    1. Hi,

      Oh I'd love to hear what happened to "women in TEFL!"

      As I said to Julie though, do you think it's "just" the work? I'm sure there are tons of women who work just as hard, aren't there?

      also as women are overrepresented in TEFL generally,(let's say for the sake of argument 70/30) wouldn't we expect, even with bias added in, for the top rungs to be 50/50 ish?

      Do you not think there could be something to the idea of A) men being seen as more capable (even by women) for whatever reason and B)women almost self-handicapping. "I'm not going to apply for that job because I'd never get it" -also a possible side effect of unconscious bias?

  5. Great post... lots to think about. Thanks for writing it.

    A few things came to mind as I read it.

    1st, I think you are perhaps being a bit too quick to accept difference theory so surely. Tannen is not without her detractors.
    (If you'd like to know my non-evidence based guess I would say that CEOs talk like CEOs regardless of their gender)

    2nd I find myself wondering what you mean by "position." Would you agree that many of the men you mentioned at the start get their prestige from the selling of (non textbook) books? So I think rather than simply all the good jobs/positions (rungs) going to men there might be more at play here.

    At a guess, all the men you mentioned above are around the same age. Perhaps when this field was exploding they were the dudes that were writing the books/articles that were capturing the attention of customers.

    Others have mentioned the touring and such so I won't mention that here but I think that there is a marketing and market (capitalism) aspect to this.

    Thanks for the post and thanks for reading my comments.

    ps- I couldn't resist the observation that the people you mentioned at the start are all (to my knowledge or based on my assumptions) L1 users of English with the same racial background (in a field that isn't).

    1. Hi mike thanks for commenting!

      I think your comment about Tannen is fair and to be honest it was a bit of lazy linking. She's the most well-known advocate of difference between male and female language use differences. She's a bit men from mars, isn't she? Still, I think the point still stands.

      I think you make a valid point about the "explosion" of TEFL and actually that in itself would be quite an interesting thing to write about. the TEFL big bang! But you ultimately return to the same question -why were, in a female dominated field, those guys the ones writing books that were capturing people's attention?

      My next post will, I hope deal with your PS and the question of prestige.


  6. I'm not sure exactly what makes a "big name." I know that when I want to back up my arguments or find some interesting things to read on student interactions, I often turn to Teresa Pica. Diane Larsen-Freeman gets me thinking about grammar like no one else writing. And Julian Bamford's ideas on extensive reading pushed me to try out a program in my own school. I know that trotting out a few names isn't the same as hard data that shows there isn't the kind of systemic prejudice that might be a part of the TEFL world. But when it comes to my own interests and the readings that have been suggested to me, I find that women are very well represented indeed. Aside from the published article side of things, the blogs I regularly read and inspire me also tend to lean heavily to those written by women. So maybe, as Rachel has pointed out, in the highly networked world, even the perception of men as the "big names" in ELT will slowly change.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I think there are a lot of "big name" women, -and moreso in applied linguistics than straight TEFL. It just seems like there should be far more. If you look at plenary speakers for IATEFL, men quite often but not always outnumber women, and many of the top journals, like ELTJ, have a man as chief editor. Rachel posted this article recently though, which does mine to shame in both content and thoroughness. I feel like deleting my article and just leaving a link for this:

  7. There was an ELTchat on this subject last year I think Transcript: (unfortunately there is no summary) It was really interesting but generally based on perceptions. I asked Shaun Wilden (from IH world) if they could analyse a breakdown of Senior teachers vs "runts" and the gender divide but I guess it slipped off the agenda (I forgot to push I'll ask again).
    There does also seem to be a national divide (again anecdotal) with Female teachers more common in Europe and south America and male more common in Eastern Europe and Asia.
    as has been mentioned women seem more predominant in writing materials and yet men seem more predominant in the speaking circuit and methodology.
    The question of Correlation and Causation comes up, how much of the lifestyles are chosen or forced by society (personally I say that the presence of a uterus and the effects of pregnancy mean that society can't take all the blame, though may certainly exemplify).
    The question of whether (in general) different character types are attracted to ELT abroad between the sexes also arises. most male teachers I know didn't study a language at university, whereas with women the trend completely reverses (in my experience) if this is generally true then it may well mean that different personality types are attracted.
    basically a huge "I don't know" but the fact there aren't any huge female personalities is interesting.

  8. Hi Chris

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and thanks for the link. Can I ask you what you mean by "personally I say that the presence of a uterus and the effects of pregnancy mean that society can't take all the blame"? I'm not really clear? Do you mean thatbecause of the physical differences between men and women we should expect there to be a bit of a difference?

    1. Thank you for not hanging me by a, what I now realise, poorly worded sentence and paragraph.
      I don't think it's a case of "should expect" but perhaps this has lead to/been used as justification for. (necessary to remove should for now)
      For example, to achieve a position of such height networking, travelling round the world to conferences and teaching in several different contexts are important factors. During some points of pregnancy this is impossible (but not for the fathers). Hence a biological factor. The stronger factor is that after having a child it is seen as more reasonable for the father to travel than the mother, even when there is no biological reason.
      They can be linked though, the past view that everyone MUST have children and larger family sizes would have amplified other factors too.

      Another interesting point that would be really interesting to see the evidence for in ELT is salary. Generally around the world Men get paid more than women (in "developed countries" and LEDC as well)for doing the same job. I wonder if this is the same in ELT as well...

    2. ah I see what you mean now (phew!)

      The salary point is an interesting one. It would also be interesting o send out identical CVs to EFL companies (men and women) and see if there is a difference in the rate of people being offered interviews.