If you start a conversation about women in ELT, you seem to end up talking about men pretty quickly. How they might be feeling at being excluded, how they too suffer from sexism by having to wear uncomfortable smart shoes, how they, in fact, are sure sexism does not exist in ELT since they’ve never seen any.
The title of this post might be “Time to talk about …” but, in the case of gender bias and sexism in ELT, I’m beginning to wonder if sometimes, for some people, maybe it’s not time to talk, but time to shut up and listen instead.
Here’s a conversation I’ve had often since starting a Facebook group called ‘Women in ELT’. The group, initially women-only following the results of the decision of the 12 founding members and then a vote open to the 500+ members we had at the end of January 2017, is now at over 600 members, rising every day.
ME: ‘Come and join our Facebook group Women in ELT if you’re a woman in ELT.’
BERT: ‘What about the men in ELT?’
The group Women in ELT is not the first such initiative. Pre-social media, Women in TEFL was set up by Madeleine du Vivier, Ingrid Freebairn and Judy Garton-Sprenger in 1986. They held conferences and ran a newsletter, mainly aiming at rebalancing the lack of women in ELT managerial roles at the time and gender bias in ELT materials. In the UK at least, it looks like there are more women in managerial roles than in the 80s when a management conference would be attended by only two or three women, though materials still suffer from bias, even in children’s books. I wonder how much low-voiced grumbling there was thirty years ago that women were assembling and doing something for themselves, by themselves? Such grumbling today is, of course, amplified by social media.
The ‘What about men?’ question is part of a noticeable trend:
A conversation about women, is inevitably, often immediately, derailed into one about men.
I don’t know, men, is my answer, if you want to start a group, go ahead. I can well believe there are issues to be tackled and discussed that men might want to talk about in a group of their own making. The fact no-one has set up a serious group suggests, to me, men feel free to air their issues in the general forums we all inhabit.
A better response would be ‘I wonder why women feel they need this kind of group?’ But, in order for that question to lead to any real discussion, it is really up to the person who asks it to then listen to the answer. I almost thought I was getting this when another man, let’s call him Chuck, in a public ELT Facebook group asked me: ‘I wonder, in a brief paragraph, whether the different experience of ELT for men/women can be defined.’
I thought this was a genuine attempt at listening to a point of view Chuck had never come across before, but I replied that a paragraph would be quite a challenge. I meant, of course, that to distil gender bias into one paragraph would be impossible to do in any meaningful way because ELT as a subset of Life in General includes the many types of bias, discrimination and sexism women experience every day. Chuck wondered if maybe I could do it in one sentence if I didn’t have time to write a whole paragraph. (He meant since I probably didn’t have substantial examples.)
Chuck then went on to tell me that he has never seen any sexism in ELT—well, apart from one man-hating female boss he had once, though he didn’t expand on how her thing against men manifested itself.
This is not ‘talking about’ it’s ‘talking at.’
If you’re not a woman, don’t try and tell a woman that the thing she can’t possibly reduce to five lines doesn’t exist.
And don’t turn that conversation around to start talking about the sexism you’ve seen against men.
So, still willing to believe it was a genuine question, I gave Chuck one example I’d recently heard: Female teachers in Brazil required to attend an extra hour of orientation at a new job – about makeup.
But Chuck still wasn’t listening. He dismissed it with ‘Wow! Guess all countries/institutions have their peculiarities.’ What I described might sound minor if you’re not really listening, but it shows women being expected to look sexually desirable in order to do their job or even, perhaps, get hired. Where that ‘peculiarity’ can lead is overt sexual harassment, because it is typical of the mindset where women are objectified and judged on their attractiveness.
The next guy to comment on the thread, let’s call him Donald, also had no idea what he was talking about and should have been listening. Donald, apparently, had been very offended when working for a school where young, attractive girls were specifically hired for their popularity with older business men and kids. He had also seen school owners doing ‘this flirty thing’ with those girls. He seemed pretty pissed off that those girls ‘seemed to accept it while they were making money’ yet also said two girls had quit and one had fallen ill.
Why hadn’t they ‘stepped up earlier?’ he demanded.
Somehow while witness to this serious sexual harassment, Donald had not only remained silent, nor even recognised the harassment, he blamed the victims for what kept happening to them because they hadn’t ‘stepped up earlier’. He didn’t even seem to sympathise with their predicament. By virtue of his gender, Donald had secured a job and took home his pay every month with no boss doing ‘this flirty thing,’ driving him to quit or become ill. Yet he was still complaining about the injustice done to him years later on Facebook (quite what it was that offended him about his privileged, harassment-free salary I am not sure). It made me wonder if Chuck too had never seen sexism in his workplaces (apart from the ‘man-hating’ boss) solely because he was just as unaware when faced with evidence under his own nose.
But, even apart from the attitudes of the men in this thread, one other thing was staggeringly obvious. In this mixed, public, professional ELT Facebook group of 1300 members, not one other women was active in that thread. It was just men talking about men, or from a male perspective, forming a thread that women didn’t feel comfortable participating in.
So, that’s why next time there’s a conversation about gender bias in ELT, maybe it’s time some men listened instead of spoke. Or, if you’re a woman in ELT and you’d like to speak where you can be heard and listened to, there’s a Facebook group of 600+ women who are all ears.
Nicola Prentis is an award-winning ELT materials writer and the founder of the Women in ELT Facebook group. She is co-running a mini-conference at Innovate ELT in Barcelona on May 5, called Celebrating Women in ELT which is open to all.
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Ear by Naika Lieva, from flickr. CC 2.0.