November 02, 2013
November 02, 2013
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.
* NEST = native English speaking teacher
NNEST or non-NEST = non-native English speaking teacher