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While researching our recent IATEFL talk there was one idea I kept encountering that struck me as worth examining in more detail.  It was:

‘Quotas are wrong — we should get the best people.’

On the face of it this seems entirely fair and reasonable. You may well agree — after all, in an ELTchat on the topic of sexism in ELT almost all the participants, male and female agreed. Other comments included the following:

Quotas are sexist!!

Quotas are never a good idea. Merit more important

You’re kidding right? So you would be prepared to sacrifice good speakers to fulfil quota?

If we had quotas there would be more men in the industry

In fact only one commentator seemed to disagree saying “quotas are not sexist, they enforce equality” but this was the minority view. Quotas, it seems are not a popular solution. We should get the best people. That’s the only fair thing to do.

The best

You know what’s weird though? Again and again the “best” people just happen to be men. When we looked at conference plenary speakers we found, despite the 60/40 (as high as 80/20 in places like Brazil) female/male split, in 2014, 141 plenary spots went to men and 96 women. this year seems similar.

What is surprising is that this fact rarely leads to reflection among those who defend the “get the best” position. ‘Aren’t you just a tad curious?’ I always wonder ‘why 60% of the profession is seemingly unable to produce its share of decent speakers?’ Is it that you think it doesn’t matter why? Or is it just a freaky coincidence?

There is another problem with the “merit” argument as noted in this article:

Some argue that setting a quota for women in leading academic positions such as professorships will result in mediocre female candidates being promoted. But there is a gap in reasoning here. Women and men are equally talented, so if men occupy a large majority of high-level posts, there must be an awful lot of mediocrity among their number. Is medio­crity more acceptable in men?

This argument surely holds for ELT which has a higher than 50% pool of female talent to draw from.


While carrying out the research we decided to directly ask conference organisers why women appeared so infrequently as plenary speakers. One reply we heard was that the pool of female speakers is very small. Our survey results would seem to back that up to some extent. When we asked people to name “big names” we got 161 men mentioned by name while only 89 women were mentioned. Women are less visible it seems.

An article about female comedy talent makes a similar point:

Although comedy producers admit as much in private, the standard cop-out is that there isn’t a big enough pool of female talent in the stand-up world to draw on.

The author goes on to say that 19% of the stand-ups in the UK are women and yet “few [panel] shows reflect this figure”. The same is true of ELT. At IATEFL 2014, 60% of all talks were by women. So there clearly are plenty of willing and able female speakers out there.


Some women have told me they want to speak, but they don’t want to be a token female speaker. No one wants to feel they won the ‘special’ prize. That being said, how else do we move forward? We can’t increase the number of women in the industry as it’s already female dominated. So how will anything change without tokenism or positive discrimination? It’s probably better than doing nothing at all. A couple of anecdotes to illustrate this:

  1. A conference organiser told me “we have to get a woman — we’re scared of what Tessa will say if we don’t”.
  2. A female plenary speaker recently told me the only reason she had been invited was because a conference organiser told her “we need a woman”.

You might call these token women, but in both cases, without them, there would have been no women.

Systematic difference

But this isn’t just about a few plenary speakers, there is a deeper issue here. It’s the same issue that means male nurses on average earn more than female nurses. Why most secondary school head teachers are male despite most teachers being female. Why 12 of TEFLology podcast‘s guests have been men but only 7 women have been women. Why, of the several ELT podcasts out there, are almost all of them hosted by men? It’s not a conscious decision to exclude women, but the results are telling.

Recently ETP celebrated their 100 edition. The cover had four invited authors on, all of whom were men. When Nicola tweeted about this some suggested it was unfair to focus on the cover alone so I went away and to satisfy my curiosity counted the number of articles in ETP, MET, and ELTJ. I didn’t approach this in the most scientific way but just grabbed some old copies from the staffroom and counted. The numbers told the same story, 8-3, 7-3,  9-5, 13-4, 11-6 and on and on. There were editions of these magazines with more women authors than men but not usually and often the gap was very large. Now of course there isn’t a conspiracy of editors stopping women from getting published. But, in a female dominated industry, isn’t this a bit odd?

Teresa Bestwick writes of a recent conference in Spain:

This year, 67% of speakers are male.  Whilst on the face of it this could easily look like discrimination, of all the proposals received, 60% were from men so in fact the programme reflects this fairly.

It may indeed reflect proposals but why are women sending in fewer proposals?

Fewer hosts, fewer guests, fewer articles, fewer proposals and fewer plenary speakers. No one is intentionally seeking this outcome but all the same, this is the outcome. Is there a confidence gap at work here as some have suggested?

going up?

In the business world there is often reference to a glass ceiling. In female dominated fields like teaching researchers talk about the glass escalator. Men choosing careers in female dominated professions will find it easier to rise to the top. A Slate article notes:

In a series of interviews with male nurses and librarians, men reported feeling like they had been “fast-tracked” into leadership roles. Men also reported feeling that they were perceived as more competent, that people were more forgiving of their mistakes …

What was a little disheartening when researching this was seeing other, male dominated fields trying to think of ways to increase female participation. How would they feel, I wondered, knowing that even when women are in the majority the problem persists.


This is, of course, not a problem isolated to ELT. The same thing can be seen in education more generally, in film and TV, panel shows, newspaper bylines and in politics. Women are 50% of the population but only one third of MPs are female. Men headline festivals way more often than women. We can also note that, in general, women speak less than men even when they outnumber men. Men also interrupt more.

No one is to blame for the current situation. What we need to ask is whether or not we’re happy with things as they are and whether or not we want to do something about it?

Nb: this article was edited to change the line ‘Why most head teachers are male‘ to ‘Why most secondary school head teachers are male‘ See comments for more discussion.