Time to talk about … gender inequality by Nicola Prentis


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.

Try listening.

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. 

Everyone involved in TaWSIG would like to extend their thanks to Nicola for submitting this post. Has this inspired YOU to write for us? Then take a look at our submissions criteria and send in a pitch or an article.

Why not submit? Join the conversation about change in ELT.



Ear by Naika Lieva, from flickr. CC 2.0.


21 Responses

  1. Ben

    February 27, 2017 11:55 am

    Very good. Watch out for the sea lions and keep doing your thing. Chucks and Donalds are quite happy to waste your time and sap your energy.

  2. Phil Wade

    February 27, 2017 12:10 pm

    I’ve seen the ‘flirty’ thing and had my schedule reduced to just 1 hour as girls got all my classes solely because 1) the school believed only girls could teach kids and thus it was easier to have them do all the adults too 2) the boss seemed to prefer them. I voiced concerns and told the ‘girls’ to stand up but at that time the boss was very clearly ‘my way or out’. New assistants, always young and female, were told ‘you MUST get on with him or you are out’. Men had a similar thing where unless you did everything told and were constantly greatful, you got less work. I saw several female employees not show up, 1 walked out and another threatened to sue. Power to them. The boss aimed at unqualified people so he could save money and non-natives on visas so he could get away with no contracts. Work opportunities were few, especially for non-natives so getting such a job was rare as there were only 2 schools. This is the sad truth in that if you need money to live, you sometimes have to put up with bad things but when female colleagues would say ‘when are you leaving’, it certainly pushed me towards that door but unemployment too.

    • Nicola Prentis

      February 27, 2017 2:01 pm

      Telling victims of harrassment (especially those who are clearly stressed out, even ill) to stand up for themselves is akin to holding them responsible for it in my opinion. You had to do as you were told and appear grateful, they had to endure sexual harrassment. I don’t see these as equal. The fact they were getting more work DOES NOT mean they had an advantage, they were being exploited and harrassed. Maybe they needed a different kind of support, one where their male colleague clearly stood up for them when they were too scared to? It sounds a lot like you told them to suck it up, or put up a fight, and then watched to see what happened. But maybe that’s not the case and you did help them. My amazement is that you seem to want to put yourself and your reduced timetable as the bigger unfairness here. Think about it from their point of view and how scared they must have been about future jobs where maybe their bosses might prey on them and their male colleagues resent them for it.

      • Phil Wade

        February 27, 2017 9:40 pm

        As I said, I got less and less work. Every time a woman was hired, I got less, despite being the oldest in that particularly school. I even trained and mentored some of them and then watched as some did everything they could to get my students and di not voice and reservations when they got mine. Flirting with clients is another matter too. These girls were NOT scared AT ALL. They were not babies. They were adults looking for work and trying to pay bills. They were friendly and got work, despite not being qualified teachers. In a country where kissing on the cheek is done all day almost, they did the same. I voiced concerns about the creepiness of the boss several times but was told ‘he is OK’ and ‘that’s how it is here’. I’m not a saint and they were adults. Nobody ever worried about me and female clients being too friendly or weeks where I had no work or clients who did not show or being told to carry furniture and build tables as ‘I was the only man’. I’m not quite sure what I as a just a zero hour contracter was supposed to have done but I would advise women, especially young ones, to avoid these types of jobs and if the boss and clients get too friendly or ask you out to say no. I’ve been bullied and harrassed and mentally abused in jobs a few times, it’s not pretty and is why you should work somewhere with a good HR department and a wellness initiative. TEFL is too full of little dodgy schools that are unchecked perhaps so you have to stick to the big chains I guess.

        • Ben

          February 27, 2017 10:23 pm

          The petty arguments, the strident tone, and the anecdotes that are neither evidence, nor are relevant to the problems discussed, are all things seen in a lot of online dialogue and blog commentary these days. TEFL is indeed too full of dodgy little schools that are unchecked, as well as discrimination working in a variety of ways and contexts. Sexual discrimination in TEFL is a real and genuine problem. Awful working conditions, harassment, lack of support, a poor duty of care for teachers and so many other things get to the crux of the issue. However well meaning your intentions, Mr Phil Wade (I don’t know you but I am sure you are a good person) and whatever the truth of your experiences, the outcome of your comments is surely not what you desire. You are getting involved in arguments and raising the temperature, your own included, in a way that is a challenge to the main aims and issues noted in this post. Surely we can all agree that the systems of discrimination working against women need to be fought. Also, Nicola (who I also don’t know) deserves recognition for very tiring (unpaid) efforts at trying to achieve positive change in the industry. As the article suggests, while you may have some very interesting things to say, it may be more appropriate to read and take notes at this moment in time. As a fellow old white dinosaur of TEFL (an assumption), I will join you in doing so and comment no more. Peace and Love 🙂

        • Paul Walsh

          February 27, 2017 10:23 pm

          Phil, I’m finding it hard to understand what you are saying because in what you describe everything is mixed up together: your description of your boss, the behaviour of your female colleagues, etc.

          But what you’re describing sounds like both you and the women you describe (though I can’t speak for them) were engaged in some kind of negative solidarity. [‘negative solidarity is an aggressively enraged sense of injustice, committed to the idea that, because I must endure increasingly austere working conditions (wage freezes, loss of benefits, declining pension pot, erasure of job security and increasing precarity) then everyone else must too.’] http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2013/08/negative-solidarity-towards-definition.html

          This is like saying ‘Well, we’re all being treated like crap so we have to treat each OTHER like crap in order to get ahead’. But I’m not sure if this has anything to do with what Nicola is talking about: gender inequality as a systemic phenomenon.

          I mean, are you saying you were discriminated against in your situation?

          • Phil Wade

            February 28, 2017 7:11 am

            Perhaps I’m mainly saying that I’m not too happy about my FB comments in a chat with PLN friends being used in a blog post without my permission and being woven into such a post. But that’s life nowadays on FB it seems. I’ve been accused of damaging the writing industry, of being against other groups etc.

            Gender inequality exists is many places as women are different to men, as more than 1 HR student has said to me. If I hear the ‘have more kids so you can get more benefits, retire early and work less’ argument, I may go crazy. This is the mentality here in France and 99% of my students know it. In some govt jobs women only have to work 15 years if they have 3 kids. If you have 2, you get 200 Euros a month in benefits etc etc. This is pretty good but also very bad as some exploit it. That is the problem, imo. Same for free grants. As a result, there is this fear of ‘she’s 30 and not married so she’s a risky hire’ in the minds of some male HR people. Asking about childcare is another interview question I’ve heard of, as we have no schools on Wednesdays.

            Anyhow, I’ll leave you to your post but do ask if you are going to use my comments, ideas etc from anywhere, to ask first. The same for the CHUCK person.

          • Paul Walsh

            February 28, 2017 11:09 am

            Hi Phil,

            I didn’t know about the Facebook comment thing so can’t comment on that. But it feels like you’re using just hearsay and rumour to justify sweeping statements about the situation in France. ‘99% of my students know it’, or ‘In some govt jobs’ [which govt jobs?] are not reliable indicators on which to base anything.

            It sounds as if you’re saying that you have been discriminated against, that you have been the victim of sexism. Which is untrue by any sane definition. (Did you read the link that Michelle Hunter posted earlier? Here it is: https://www.bustle.com/articles/71400-6-reasons-men-can-literally-never-be-victims-of-sexism-and-those-who-think-they)

            And if you’re annoyed at the conditions or benefits that some women enjoy in France (that have been fought for and won over generations no doubt) – then that just sounds like the ‘negative solidarity’ that I posted before. But you probably didn’t read that either.

            Nicola’s post was ‘Let’s talk about … gender inequality’ NOT ‘Let’s fail to acknowledge … gender inequality’. And she’s right. How can anyone make any progress if people like you won’t even acknowledge it exists?

          • Paul Walsh

            March 1, 2017 9:40 am


            Thanks for your comment which I’m not going to post for the following reasons:

            i) You simply haven’t listened to anything anyone else has said on here (both men and women) which, for a post called ‘Let’s talk about … ‘ is just rude.

            i) You continue to portray yourself as the ultimate victim of gender inequality.

            iii) With sweeping statements and unproven accusations you drag the level of discussion down to the level of ‘Why isn’t there a Man’s Pancake Day?’

            Further, I’m mystified as to why you think TaWSIG, or Nicola or me have anything to apologise for. If you have a complaint against either me of Nicola then please direct it at one of us and we’ll answer it.

            What Nicola wrote is worth reading again: “Try listening”.

    • Amanda Davies

      February 27, 2017 4:36 pm

      Can we refer to them as women? Referring to men and girls shows a clear gender inequality. You later use female but that seems to be because ’employee’ and ‘colleague’ don’t collocate with girl. Whilst I’d like to say that this is because girls (and boys) are never employees or colleagues, unfortunately there are many places around the world where child labour is the norm. But maybe that’s ok if the children (like the women in your post) are not standing up to their employers.

  3. Michelle Hunter

    February 27, 2017 3:06 pm

    In a world where the default group is male (white, western, middle-classed, heterosexual), I’d make no excuses for a group of people choosing to come together over a commonality, in this case gender. To have a discussion knowing it won’t be hi-jacked by individuals with recourse to plenty of other groups is a blessed relief.

    ps: Helpful explanation of sexism (& racism) and that individual bullying by a female boss, is not an example of sexism: https://www.bustle.com/articles/71400-6-reasons-men-can-literally-never-be-victims-of-sexism-and-those-who-think-they

  4. Sinéad Laffan

    February 27, 2017 4:15 pm

    Donald though? Was that really necessary? More than a little loaded. Not every man who disagrees with you grabs pussy without consent.

  5. Phil Wade

    March 1, 2017 11:46 am


    You won’t post this so I’ll be brief.

    I will say it again. You printed my FB comments but changed my name and did not ask permission or warn me. For me, that is not good practice and just rude. You don’t acknowledge it or apologise so fine. I’m sure you wouldn’t be OK with me taking all your comments, changing your name to Rob and writing a post about how TAWSIG is evil.

    Anyhow, I really have better things to do. End of story.

    • Nicola Prentis

      March 1, 2017 12:45 pm

      Phil, Paul didn’t even know it was you, and neither did anyone else until you carried on in the same vein here. I paraphrased comments made in a public forum, preserving your anonymity and not even making it clear which forum I was talking about. I don’t need to apologise for that. For me, the focus was on the overlooking of sexual harassment and the way the victims were being blamed. My focus was not on you, though you continue to make it about you and to centre your own experiences. You are only proving my point – which was already fully made. I still do not see that you were sexually harassed. I still do not see that you empathised with the victims nor understand how they were being exploited. Your own description of them was 2 had to quit and 1 got ill. How that equates to them being happy with the status quo at that school I do not understand.

  6. Judy Garton-Sprenger

    March 1, 2017 5:04 pm

    Hi Nicola – just a factual note: Jill Florent and Catherine Walter were strongly involved with Women in TEFL, but they weren’t the founders. Then who? – you may ask. As I recall: Madeleine du Vivier, with Ingrid Freebairn and myself as secretary.

    • Nicola Prentis

      March 1, 2017 9:08 pm

      This is something I tried to check and couldn’t via Google and I *really* should have asked you! Will drop Paul a note to amend it in the morning, though of course, he must have seen this comment. Thank you for pointing it out!

  7. Theresa Gorman

    March 1, 2017 10:04 pm

    Phil, I only know you online, but my impression is that you are a fairly nice, fairly flawed person, like most of us, who usually has his heart in the right place. That doesn’t mean you aren’t susceptible to sexism–perpetrating it and benefiting from it. Just like me, a white person who is working to unlearn racism–it’s my responsibility to listen to people when they talk about how racism hurts them, including how something I unwittingly did may have hurt them, or that I benefit from some aspect of the system which ensures that they earn less. Yes, in Europe, including France, women still earn lesson than men. The big question is, what are people who are given privilege doing to learn and to help build a world where everybody enjoys the privileges that we/they enjoy? You may not always feel privileged; ELT is tough for those of us at the bottom. But make no mistake, there is always someone worse off than you, usually a ‘she’, and usually not a white person. If we at the bottom are ever going to create a more humane and fair system, we need to be able to listen to each other and build trust.
    Your comments to some other thread were paraphrased and anonymized, but you claim responsibility for them right here. I think your comments were used because they were so typical–so no, it wasn’t about you, your comments just happened to be the ones that came to the writer’s mind at that moment.

  8. Sadeqa Ghazal

    March 2, 2017 7:31 am

    Thanks a lot for starting a conversation Nicola. I read the blog and the following comments with much interest. It seems that some people still believe that women enjoy the ‘flirty-girl’ thing and that (enduring it IMO) helps them to advance their career. Here is another side of the story witnessed by me in a different part of the world. There is this local private school which offers education from nursery to 10th grade. The administrative policy is never to promote any female teacher beyond grade five, no matter how experienced or accomplished she is or how much she has done for the school. It does not help much if the woman is still unmarried. They appoint a man, straight out of the college graduate (bachelors, not even masters), to teach grade nine social studies but they do not even consider a woman, masters in Zoology, to teach science beyond grade five. Women teachers are not given any leadership position in any school event or committee. Even senior female teachers are patronized by their male colleagues. Several women teachers mentioned being dissatisfied with the way they were treated in our personal conversations. The only reason they still work there is that jobs don’t come easy and that they are not sexually harassed in this work place (a major reason for many of them). The highest post that has been given to only one woman so far is that of the principal of junior section (nursery to fifth grade). I wonder if this single position is enough to make all other women teachers feel sufficiently rewarded for their professional commitment to that school. Is this the price one has to pay for avoiding a ‘flirty thing’ situation? And what message is this policy sending to all the students of that school?

    This is not an isolated incident in this part of the world (I deliberately avoid mentioning any place). There are many such schools/colleges where being a woman, specially an unmarried woman, actually hinders one’s professional advancement. It’s a cultural norm here to patronize women, specially if they are young and unmarried, and trivialize their opinion and professional accomplishments. For me it is grave enough that professional adult women are treated as less than their male counterparts and that they are not even given an opportunity to prove themselves. It hardly surprises me that in other parts of the world women endure this ‘flirty-thing’ to get a shot at advancing their career.

    As for a female bullying boss, we all have to deal with bullies in work places irrespective of our gender or theirs. Several of my male colleagues still act like school yard bullies and there is nothing that would change their behavior. For example, they believe exchanging every day civilities like ‘Hi’ or ‘good morning’ is like doing a huge favour to others and would never initiate such exchanges. Sometimes they don’t even respond to such greetings. Do I call it male chauvinism? NO! It’s simply a matter of following different social norms. I was raised to be polite to all, they might have had a different upbringing.


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