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Pat on the Back

Author and presenter Patrick Jackson looks at the altruistic side of ELT.

November 02, 2013

Balancing the Boy Band

In the world of ELT, what or who comes to mind when you hear the words ‘plenary speaker’? I think of Ken Wilson, Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury; all charming gentlemen of a certain age. They are repeatedly asked to speak for a number of reasons, primarily because they draw an audience to the conferences that they headline. They have earned the right to have people listen to them by writing popular methodology and teacher development materials and/or ELT courses. Over the years they have become the rock stars of the industry. Like many greying rockers, they now enjoy an avuncular relationship with their audiences, feted, fed and fawned over by the organisers and attendees.

They all give a cracking good talk that hits the right spot, pitched somewhere between methodology and something fun to take home and try out in the classroom on Monday. They enjoy their special position and handle it with charm; wining, dining and posing for photographs with their BFFs in their PLNs. They also enjoy the camaraderie of the industry and to my knowledge and experience are unfailingly gracious and supportive to the younger generation of presenters and authors snapping at their heels. Following their progress online means one never really has to travel any more. It’s a constant stream of sights, smiles and delicious dishes. Not what you would call a bum deal. So why would anyone have a problem with that? What’s not to like?

A glance at most conference schedules shows a line-up that is completely skewed gender-wise both in terms of the audience and the speakers on stage. Overwhelmingly, the plenaries are men and the audience are women. It is also skewed in favour of international visiting speakers rather than home-grown talent. The discussion about gender and NEST/non-NEST* imbalance has gone on in depth on both Jeremy Harmer’s and Ken Wilson’s blogs. Both of them are as uncomfortable with the status quo as anyone else. To make this point, I have seen Ken Wilson ask an audience of five hundred people to stand up, then go on in turn to ask the local women, the foreign women and then the local men to sit down. When he had done that, only Ken, myself and another of the plenary speakers was left standing. He had made his point.

The Fair List celebrates excellence of a different kind; the achievement of gender balance in plenary speakers, presenters or speaker panels at ELT events, annually, in the UK.

This is something that ELT author, Tessa Woodward has set out to address by founding The Fair List. It’s an awareness-raising movement that celebrates the achievement of gender balance in plenary speakers, presenters or speaker panels at ELT events in the UK. The Fair List website is clear, entertaining and very informative. It contains information about the issue and specific help for conference organisers choosing speakers. There is also support for women who might have been feeling reluctant to get up and present. Tessa has deliberately restricted it to the UK but welcomes contact from people who would like to set up similar lists in other countries. I have a feeling that the idea is going to spread.

Tessa Woodward (rear, 3rd from left) at the The Fair List awards at IATEFL Conference, Liverpool 2013

At last year’s aforementioned conference, I gave my first plenary talk. It was Ken Wilson’s 9th consecutive time giving the plenary at that same conference. He was fabulous as ever but it somewhat resembled a One Direction concert. Okay, the audience weren’t 12 years old, but the gender ratios were pretty much the same. Isn’t it time for the world of ELT to grow up, and for some more women to step up? The Fair List is just the sort of action required if this is ever going to happen.

The Fair List website

* NEST = native English speaking teacher
NNEST or non-NEST = non-native English speaking teacher

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This article does not mirror what I see going on at JALT. In Kobe last weekend, it seemed that the organizing committee was overwhelmingly female. And they did a fantastic job. While there were still more males in the audience, the technology workshops I attended all had more females in them. And most of them were beyond their 40s. Maybe JALT is different. If you look at the presentations and the organization, that might make you see why.

There is so much I’d like to say in response to what Mr Jackson wrote that I don't know where to start.

1. often we are limited by the publishers. they choose the speakers they're willing to sponsor. it's not always the organisers' "fault". it's the organisers' lack of finances. we would love to host Dorothy Zemach and/or Barbara Sakamoto. what publisher is willing to fly them from the US and Japan to central Europe?

2. we'd love to have more home-grown talent. if we could find it. we have to start somewhere.

3. there are few national males in English teaching in the country where I live. simply put, they can't afford to teach. that's why there aren't many at conferences. it seems that those who do teach often don't feel the need for professional development. especially the young ones.

4. more people will come to a conference where a 'name' is giving a plenary. without the 'rock star', there'd be no conference because there'd be far fewer participants. and the whole idea is to get as many teachers into professional development as possible, isn't it?

5. by having the 'rock stars', we bring in participants for new speakers 'to practice on'. a young colleague who had a workshop this past June was stunned to have 100 people attend. excellent experience and training for her! without the 'rock stars', that wouldn't have been possible.

6. we face disrespect as teachers in our national educational systems. have a 'name' as plenary gives us credit and raises awareness that we care about your work and our professional growth. it helps show that we are professionals. this is especially important to the universities (who need to be more involved in professional development).

7. 'feted, fed and fawned over' - I hope we never do that. but we are grateful to have a 'name' that is willing to come and share their wisdom, experience and knowledge. and leave us inspired and in a much better mood than after a tough week of teaching or after reading the latest soundbite by the Minister of Education.

I think Lynne's remarks are a brilliant explanation of the Catch-22 situation re participants and also publishers. I wonder if there's anything in the idea that Burcu Akyol adopted at ISTEK, having second-tier plenaries, called keynotes or something, maybe two simultaneously, both involving local speakers? (The local speakers part wasn't part of Burcu's plan, I just added that).

I think this has always been so at ELT conferences, in the case of the BESIG ones that I have attended over the last ten years I can only recall one female plenary speaker (Vicki Hollett, Poznan, 2009). This year’s Prague conference also has a male plenary speaker, but there is a better gender balance in the main programme with 59 male speakers and 68 female speakers. They might be up for a Fair List Award there!

Interestingly, there is no female equivalent word for ‘avuncular’ (unless you count ‘materteral’ which means ‘aunt-like’) and for that matter, how many greying female rock stars are still doing world tours?

" many greying female rock stars are still doing world tours?"

For what it's worth, I saw Patti Smith in Toronto in September in all her greying glory. A great show!

Sarah Mulvey

Gosh, I'd come to JALT in a heartbeat! But yes, I need my airfare paid, and a hotel room (for state conferences in the US, though, I've often been put up in someone's house). I don't need a speaker fee, but I don't feel I can travel somewhere, for work, and *lose* money. I'm fine not making any, I just am not in a position to fund my own travel. Often publishers do this for me, and I do feel I've written for just about all of them by now. But it's a little awkward for an author to write to her publisher and say, "Hey, send me to JALT! I love that conference!"

What conference organizers could do, though, is ask publishers who they feel would be big draws at JALT, and then together maybe you could draw up a list of people who sound interesting to you. Then of course you need to see if those people are free at that time, have something they'd like to present about that you'd also like to listen to, etc.

I think publishers at most conferences would then also like a guaranteed spot for that speaker to also talk about a book, or at least an academic area not unrelated to a book; I don't know if JALT already provides that, but you can see why the publisher would want to feel there's some sort of return in schlepping someone across an ocean.

I don't need any fawning, by the way, although I am fond of a fête! But by that I would understand a social gathering of some sort where the plenary speakers mingle and interact with the participants. I think that's an important part of it too, and one of the nice things about JALT is that it's not SO huge that you can't talk to people easily.

P.S. I do color my hair, but I can let it grey for a bit if people prefer!

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