63 comments on “Are plenaries ‘gender-ed’?

  1. Jeremy,

    As you may remember, I visited this very topic last year. What I found was the following:

    “I was just looking through the events I’m speaking at in the near future. Statistics (plenary and/or invited speakers):

    Event 1 – 6 male, 1 female
    Event 2 – 8 male, 4 female
    Event 3 – 8 male, 2 female
    Event 4 – 6 male, 1 female
    Event 5 – 5 male, 1 female

    [ 3 Asian, 2 European venues ]

    So I make that 33 male – 9 female, with women getting a 21.4% share of the ‘invited speaker’ market.”

    Despite your statistics, I reckon many more invited plenary speakers are women than men. For some of the possible reasons, check out the comments from different people at: http://slife.dudeney.com/?p=167


  2. Hi Gavin,

    I am sorry to have missed that discussion of yours. I’m just copying you, obviously.

    But what about treatment? Do men really have an advantage over women when they face large audiences?


  3. Jeremy,

    Nowt wrong with having this conversation again – and extending it. People over on my blog seemed to think there were a variety of reasons, though a lot of them seemed to boil down to a desperate need on the part of male speakers to be loved, appreciated, admired and enjoyed (in the ‘he was entertaining AND he made some good points’ way, I think!) and a suspicion that many female egos were not as big or as demanding. And I think I might agree with that as a ‘general’ tendency…

    But look at the make-up of the profession and in most countries you’ll find around 80% women teachers (with some exceptions, obviously) and a little bit of eye candy doesn’t go amiss among all the talk of this or that approach, methodology, state of mind, etc. That seems a fairly natural thing to me, and not worth getting indignant about (I hear the tip tap of angry keyboards heading my way already).

    Publishers like unearthing the next big thing, and are very happy if he’s a nice young man with a glint in his eye, though – as Karenne pointed out – there’s still a lot of the ‘daddy’ figures doing the circuit. Yes, I think mainly it is a man’s world, at least in terms of getting the gigs.

    The approach is different as well – remember that first Pecha Kucha? All four of us men ran around ranting and hardly breathing, trying to get the laughs. The four women, on the other hand, did slow, pleasant, deeply reflective sessions. I remember commenting right after it how shocking the divide of the sexes had been in that couple of hours.

    Anyway, I done did this one over my way, so I shall leave the field ovpen for others.


  4. Can education be a clue? are the few women speakers mainly British/Amerian or from British/American background? I noted that in the UK there are “public speaking” competitions (well at least they existed at the school I worked for)and there were “assemblies”where sometimes students could address their pairs. In class students are constantly encouraged to come to the front to do presentations, and/or work in pairs. The “presentation” concept is there already. This is not the case in France.
    It also dawned on me that it can be strange to encourage presentations (one person facing a group, without much interaction), when the heart of the presentation’s subject is often closely linked to interaction and communication. This may appear as a contradiction.
    I recently discovered the “pecha kucha”variety, and enjoyed it very much, because I have the feeling that the rhythm makes for the lack of interaction.

    • Hi Alice,

      yes I am sure it has something to do with education! And I am very interested in the idea that doing presentations in school assemblies is very much and Anglo Saxon tradition!

      Interesting that Pecha Kucha has come up again. Watching the PK films uploaded by Shelly Terrell from last year’s TESOL France conference it is clear that both Burcu Akyol and penny ur are having a terrific time – and not behaving in a way that is completely gender-determined. And that’s part of the reason why I have re-assessed my view of the (apparently) gender-motivated behaviour at that first IATEFL Pecha Kucha two years ago!


  5. HI Jeremy,

    This is a point which is very interesting indeed. I’ve been organising the ABCI 2010 Conference in Rio and when myself and Bob Lewis first approached the publishing houses, the plenary speakers we suggested were of both genders. And guess what? Now that the event is defined in terms of the plenary speakers – a line up of 6 male plenary speakers! It wasn´t due to a lack of invitation – we did ask for female plenary speakers.

    I’m I happy with the plenary speakers – yes, of course! More than happy! Does the fact that there are no female plenary speakers bother me? Hmm, it’s not the fact that there aren’t any women – it’s more based on the fact of what the person has to say. And I can think of a number of female plenary speakers I would really have liked to have at the conference.

    Now, what will the principle audience gender be? Of the 1500 teachers we hope to have, I can guess that about 70% of these will be female. And what we’ll probably also see is that most of the presentations and workshops will be presented by female teachers! So, yes, there is certainly something for us to consider, but I’m not sure women are being ignored – it might just be circumstantial.

    But let’s look at another issue: how many women actually publish materials in the world of ELT? Is there a balance between female and male authors? I actually don’t know how the stats for this stands. Because, quite often enough the presentation ladder starts with people publishing coursebooks and reference books.
    Maybe that is another question we should address?

    • Hi Valeria,

      that’s a very interesting account (and will make me feel much better about being one of the 6 testosterone-fuelled plenary-givers!!! – see David’s comment…)

      Is Olga’s lucid reasoning in her comment the answer to all this? It’s just a ‘mother’ thing? That would account for the fact that some of us men travel a lot more than the women (but that’s not always the case). But then as you say most of the presentations and workshops are given by women.

      So it’s the plenaries that count. Could it be that this is just ‘learned behaviour’? Women don’t do them because they think it’s a male zone?

      Because what you have siad (and it is not the first time I have heard this) is that modern conference organisers in our field are assiduous in trying to invite in a gender-balanced way…


  6. Yes, I do indeed remember the first Pecha Kucha and how we assumed our different approaches had been gender-motivated. But now I’m not so sure.It was too easy to think that’s why they (the women) approached their task in that way – and anyway Rose senior didn’t conform to the pattern at all. The fact that we sat together? Could be because we knew each other better? or perhaps that did have something to do with men sitting with men etc.

    The thing is, when I think about women plenary speakers and male plenary speakers…er..well is there a genuine GENDER difference in performance between Zoltan Dornyei and Claudia Ferradas Moi. And wait till you catch Jan Blake this year!! Or watch Deniz Kuroglu Ekan entrance a large audience (as I have done in Blikent and in in Abu Dhabi). All of those women (the first ones to spring to mind) are consummate performers and (this is a completely non-judgmental comment) are just as keen to be loved and admired as their males counterparts. At least that’s how it seems. And they deserve it because they are amazing speakers/performers.

  7. Hello Mr Harmer
    Most teachers are women and that’s a fact in Russia as well as in most other countries. As for statistics of conferences, there can be a simple explanation. Women usually have their family commitments and are reluctant to move from one country to another to give talks while men are more mobile.
    One more idea came to me. This can also be partially true. It’s quite natural for women to be slightly envious and dislike the showing-off-female speakers and men in this case sound more persuasive.
    Whatever the truth is there’s only one thing that matters to me and this is the talk itself. There’re dozens of gifted female educators and there are plenty of articulate male orators. The world is not symmetrical and that is the beauty and the harmony of it))
    By the way, when can we enjoy the Pecha Kucha in Moscow?

    • Olga!

      Something as simple (well being a mother is never simple!!) as that! The gender imbalance is not on the conference floor, but back at home as it has always been!

      I wonder, is it true that women don’t like ‘showing-off’ women, but are much more sympathetic to ‘showing-off’ men? Or is it, as you say, just a matter of whether the speakers are any good?


  8. It really isn’t just the plenaries, Jeremy, it’s actually incredibly difficult (if female) to get one’s ideas work and concepts listened to seriously by the gentlemen of this field… females are distinctly put into boxes and their views, especially when new or dissenting are often on auto-dismiss or auto-ignore – especially, especially by older males (the generation which expected women to stay at home, clean the kitchen, raise the kids and be quiet).

    I appreciate you raising the point and all the points you make above however I simply do not think that there is a balance, not in books, nor conference presentations nor plenaries.

    This matter (first raised by Gavin) actually gave rise to my She-in-ELT-series, which, through a number of guest postings calls attention to some of our amazing females.

    Anyhoo… I’m pretty sure that the very next person to write after me, will be a woman, who probably will disagree with me… but been there, done that, learned to yell like the boys.


    • Hi Karenne,

      yes I really appreciated your ‘She-in-ELT’ series, especially with its celebration of women ‘heroines’ (and I agree with everything Lindsay Clandfield said about Katy Wright), but I have to take issue with your general assertion that “We know that at every single conference women participants outnumber men. We know that every single conference the ratio of male speakers to female speakers is out of whack.” I absolutely agree, of course, that this is often the case, but not always. We probably need to do a student of, say. 6-months of conferencing just in our field and see how the figures stack up.

      But I am also interested in the reasons why men outnumber women. I don’t believe it’s a “men like doing it and women don’t” kind of thing (though I DO know examples of this – in both directions). I do NOT think it’s because men are better at it – for me it always depends on the individual. It may have something to with gender aspirations – i.e. learned behaviour on the part of speakers and inviters.

      But do women behave differently on the platform? Are they treated differently?

      All a mystery to me!


  9. I blame it on testosterone. Like anything, there must be a pill.

    I say that will all seriousness – men just compete. They like to be the biggest ant on the anthill. I don’t think there is anything gender about anything. It’s chemical.

    I’m all for affirmative action in this regard. If you can’t find a pill, gotta legislate it. X number of women and Y number of men on the roster (not rooster).


    • Hi David,

      well yes, I have often ‘bought into’ the testosterone view of gender difference. And I am not enough of a scientist to be able to comment intelligently. But I would urge you to read chapter 4 of Debbie Cameron’s Myth of Mars and Venus where she quotes ethnographic studies (I especially like Marjorie Harneess Goodwin’s work with American High School girls) which show that ‘does not fit with the expectations that boys will be assertive while girls are supportive nd nurturing’ (2007:67).

      So now I am not so sure!!


      • Jeremy,

        Thanks for the reference and anything “anthropological” , I’ll gobble up (my undergrad). Didn’t know someone had written a book refuting that other populist rag. If only for that sake, it must be a good read.

        However, I’ll warn you. I’m someone who follows his sniffer. If experience has taught me something to be the case – it’ll take a heck uv a lot of references and researchers to make me do an about face! Empiricism is for empire building, I prefer destruction. Though I do reserve the right at any point to say I am indeed deluded.

        And glad to hear about the affirmative action of the Pecha Kucha at IATEFL – can’t beat those Scandinavians for leading the way in that regard either (doesn’t Sweden mandate equal women / men representation in parliament?). I think this is a good thing, so long as it doesn’t become a slippery slope. (ie. mandating 50% of presenters be below 40 and 50% above ).


  10. Hi there

    I agree there is an imbalance perhaps, but I would not go as far as to say that there is mass discrimination against women as Karenne seems to suggest above. I in fact did a piece for the She in ELT series and interviewed Katy Wright, who is a senior publisher at Longman as you know. Her take on ELT publishing: that it was like a nunnery.
    Also being at that first Pecha Kucha and many others afterwards I’ve seen both men AND women give amazing speeches in that format.
    I kind of agree with David above about the testosterone element. And David, you’ll be happy to know that at Pecha Kucha events in IATEFL we did “legislate” equal numbers of men and women, but I got more women turning down the opportunity than men.

    What about men speakers with women’s names? Now THAT’s a small category! 🙂

    • Sorry, I really didn’t mean to suggest that there was mass discrimination in ELT – and while Katy may refer to ELT publishing as a nunnery but at the very top of the ladder, globally, very much not so sure about that 🙂 and I should also jump in to say that this “situation” is not isolated to ELT – my students in IT and software /banking are also discussing the same issues.

    • Sorry, Lindsay!

      I thought I’d replied to this. But I hadn’t. How rude!!

      I do think you fit into a VERY SPECIAL category, in which a name like Jeremy, for example, is excluded (unless you shorten it to Jerry or something)!!

      I don’t buy the testosterone argument one little bit as it happens – though of course there ARE male presenters who get all ‘pumped up’ before a speech. But I have seen women behave in exactly the same way, and, conversely, men who are much more consensual in their approach to plenary giving.

      Oh well. It’s a never-ending discussion I suspect…!


      • Thanks Jeremy for the response, you’re doing a herculean job keeping up with all these threads- much better than I do!
        One thing I’ve got out of this discussion is a new book to add to my “must read” list – the Cameron one. I’ve read others of hers but now will definitely get this one. Thanks for the discussion, which I am sure will resurface again on the web sometime (or maybe migrate to the print sector of our profession). A worthwhile question to ask.

  11. Hi Karenne,

    no I didn’t take your post as a ‘mass-discrimination’ one (though i think we have to be permanently watchful on that). It’s something else, isn’t it?!

    Learned behaviour? Motherhood? But of one thing I am increasingly sure. It’s not actually a GENDER’ thing. In other words I don’t buy the ‘men like strutting their stuff’, women don’t argument.

    Or do I?



    • Nah, girls like to strut too… and control conversations… I’ll be with you on that – it’s all very puzzling to me too.

      David’s suggestion of quotas is useful although am not so sure they work in the long run (but better than nothing). But not sure about the freelancing bit, Andy – I guess it really depends on where, here in Germany: it’s mainly married men in contracts (families to feed and security needed) and women in freelance…

      Dunno, one suggestion (which has no connection to other fields) is that perhaps it’s ’cause our field isn’t “really” that old yet, so the ones at the top of it at the moment were simply the ones who were around when the global shift towards English training sort of exploded… and we’ll see big changes in the gender dynamic as more and more females feel confident enter the level after teaching, teacher training. Who knows?

      Anyway, nice discussion, am glad the issue was raised again.


      • Karenne,

        that’s an interesting comment about age. There are quite a lot of old guys (not me, obviously) in the ELT profession, and certainly in my/our PLN there are a lot of fantastic, energetic eager young women who are really making their mark. Maybe that will make things change a bit.

        I wonder!


  12. Could it be something to do with freelancing? (I have no idea, I’m just throwing ideas out there because I’ve wondered exactly the same thing, and have yet to see a very convincing answer)

    What I mean is that most writers (and therefore plenary speakers) are freelance, and I wonder if there is a statistical link between gender and working on or off contract. If teaching and publishing are very female dominated industries (as mentioned above) while writing is more male dominated is it something to with the contractual issues? (Ie those working for publishers have secure contracts, and those writing don’t?). And is there a reason for a gender imbalance in the two ways of working? (If of course there is such a gender imbalance)

    As I say, I have no idea, just wondering as you are Jeremy

    • Hi Andy,

      the freelance issue? Well there ARE lots and lots of freelance ELT (and other kinds of) editors. True. But there are also a lot of ELT writers I know and many successful author teams are man + woman.


      The kind of theories I often hear are:

      1 Males like it more (that’s the testosterone argument I guess).
      2 Women are more mothers than men are fathers
      3 Conference organisers ask men more than women (the old ‘are there any good women plenary speakers? Sometimes ‘There are no good women plenary speakers!

      The trouble is that i find all of these completely unconvincing!

      Oh well. Maybe it wall all be clear sooner or later.


  13. Fascinating topic and so important Jeremy. Thanks to everyone for their great comments so far. Just found a few minutes to get some time out to throw together a few thoughts! Sorry if I repeat any of the things I said in Gavin or Karenne’s previous threads on this issue.

    I am so relieved Jeremy that you enjoyed Cameron’s book. Me too! I remember distinctly when “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” first came out and quite a few of my female (and male) friends (esp. couples) were raving about it and started using the jargon. I felt pretty depressed about it myself as it seems to suggest we are different species and I never identified much with the caricatures it described, either male or female – I remember seeing a tweet that said “men and women are both from earth – deal with it!”. This is more up my street. What is great about Cameron’s work is that she demonstrates how stereotypes of men and women are just that – stereotypes. They are powerful in that people are influenced by expectations of how they *should* behave, but those are social expectations, and the excuse that they are based in biology is a kinda convenient get out clause for just about anything. None of us is that simple surely. Over-invested ideas about masculinity/femininity are damaging to both men and women and prevent them from connecting and working together to overcome problems in truly equal ways. Cameron blows the lid off the myths in so many ways in her work and for that I admire her greatly. Now she’d be a speaker worth seeing!

    I don’t think men are more naturally disposed to showpersonship, or women more naturally disposed not to promote themselves. But men do have more of a ‘history’ of giving talks in conferences and such, at least in Europe, which may play a part in why that remains a common pattern – the voice of authority or as Karenne rightly pointed out the ‘Daddy’ figure.

    Re: ELT, yes discrimination does exist at all levels of our profession, as it does in almost all professions the world over to my knowledge. Overall women get less money in teaching for the same jobs although they are the majority. They hold less senior positions and are overall represented less in public spaces or referred to as expert sources of knowledge. It is harder for them to climb whatever is left of the career ladder because when they are in their “mid-career” moment they are often also having children, and no matter how supportive a partner a woman has, her ability to travel around and do plenaries will be affected by this. As Andy pointed out, men are perhaps more likely to be freelance (and perhaps this is one reason?). This is a very heterosexist description and may differ for same-sex couples and I caution the over-generalisation. Plus this might not be the case if you add race or class into this equation – a white woman who has the ‘right’ voice would fair better in public speaking with some audiences than a black man who may not be listened to with the same eagerness, or may be greeted with preconceptions from certain audiences. It is always more complex than simply men and women. Because men and women are more than just their biology.

    I remember coming to IATEFL Aberdeen with Maia and my partner Yiannis came too as I was still nursing (she was 6 months) and rushing off to do my IATEFL duties and my talk in between racing back to the hotel room to be with Maia! Quite a juggling act. That was how it was working for 2 years full time too. Easy to overlook how difficult that can be when you add more children into the equation. But that for me is a social reality, not a biological one. The fact remains that in many families both men and women work, but women often carry more than their fair share of responsibility for domestic duties and do not have supportive partners as I am lucky enough to have, or work colleagues perhaps…..still. I have never really believed we are in a post-feminist era as that suggest equality has been achieved, which it has not as far as I can see. And the raising of children is a big part of that.

    So…where women are represented as plenaries, undoubtedly it is because thought and effort have gone into ensuring it be so (i.e. IATEFL). Otherwise it reflects the sexism of society and although perhaps it is less affected in some ways than other professions, it has a long way to go on a whole number of issues of representation to do with gender, race, sexuality, disability. Unfortunately I think overall the way these issues are handled is not organised enough – more equal opportunities and diversity policies should be in place and acted on.

    Another sad thing is that in this day and age unlike the previous generation we have reached the point where all such problems/issues are so individualised rather than being seen as part of a wider problem at an institutional level that we all have a vested interest in changing. Some of the best ‘feminists’ I know are men, and not all the women I know are supportive of other women. It boils down, for me, to where your understanding of the world begins and ends.

    • Thank you, Sara, for thoughtful and compelling comments. I have lots of reactions:

      1 Yes, where there are lots of women plenary speakers, thought and care HAS gone into it which is why conference organisers need to keep on doing that thinking, especially in a profession where women represent such a large part of the workforce.

      2 Do women really get paid less in mainstream education? I am nervous of asking that question since it may open me up to charges of naivety, but is it true. I know that women ARE paid less than men (a fact that never ceases to amaze and shock me since there can be no possible justification for it under any system of thought that I would recognise), but you would hope education was different – but then listen to the voices that say how small the percentage of senior female academics there are (a fact that concerns me as my eldest daughter is 6 months into her first university job).

      3 I completely agree with you that there is NO difference between women and men grandstanding and wanting to be loved (the motivation for much plenary giving!!!). Different people do it differently of course, but that’s cause they are different PEOPLE!

      4 The mother vs father thing? That’s a big one I think and your story/comments ring home in a big way here.

      Glad you liked Debbie’s book. How about this quote:

      “When the infamous ‘women talk three times as much as men’ claim hit the headlines in 2006, I spent days being asked by journalists whether I thought women’s chattiness or men’s taciturnity, reflected social influences, innate characteristics, or a mixture of the two. Again, the answer is ‘none of the above’: the answer is that women don’t talk three times as much as men.”

      Most of the stuff we say about gender (like the 3X belief) just ain’t true – and yet we buy into it and let it rule our lives and colour our thinking!

      More later, I suspect.


  14. What a great discussion!

    It has always fascinated me how there could be so many female teachers and (from my limited experience) the ELT publishing sector is very much dominated by women, and yet mean appear to dominate plenary and special guest roles.

    For some time, I have put some of this down to family life. I know a lot of women who have children but continue on a part time basis with their work in publishing (without it unduly affecting promotion opportunities) – but this is different to globetrotting and presenting at conferences.

    I say this because as soon as we had children, I agreed with my wife that we should be “equally free or equally restricted” henceforth. Based on that, I have refused a lot of book tours and conference invitations in the past 4 years (and especially the past 2 years, as our second child came along). It’s not that my wife wouldn’t be able to take care of our children while I’m away, it’s because it is fundamentally unfair that I should be able to go on international trips and try to promote my professional advancement if technically she can’t. So we either go together or we don’t go at all. Given our kids are still so little, the preference is generally not to go at all. I also play a regular role (as a work-from-home Dad) with taking care of the kids at home, while my wife studies part-time.

    Alternatively, if I go away for a conference, it is her turn next to go away. My 4-5 day trip to ISTEK in Turkey in March means I have to stay home for 3 weeks in May to mind both our kids while my wife goes to Korea (for family/pleasure/business)! But I like this: it’s fair, and it’s a genuine partnership between parents.

    Things will probably change as the kids get older, especially in terms of going on conference trips as a family. Interestingly, I think publishers would refuse to pay for an author’s family to accompany him/her to conferences, and I think THAT is wrong. Budgets aside (please, please, don’t anyone get on here and wail about how tough publishers have it – I’ve seen the annual profit statements), are publishing companies doing their bit to cater to professionals with families?

    I guess my main point here, though, is that commitment to family (particularly families with young children) plays a huge role in terms of who is “available” to go on these globetrotting conference jaunts and who isn’t.

    I’d like to see a stat for how many plenary speakers are single versus married, with young kids at home versus no kids or older kids. I think that would tell an interesting story that would be useful in triangulating your data, Jeremy!

    • Hi Jason,

      I think, like Alice, you make a very god point here. And it certainly true that my early travelling when I had my first coursebooks out there was done entirely in the context of my wife looking after our young children. I also salved my conscience with the knowledge that when I was at home (most of the time) I worked from home and did a lot of childcare, but the fact remains that kids make a whole big difference to any pre-child commitment to equality!

      Perhaps there really IS something in men’s more ready acceptance of travel when kids are young. So they can build their speaking ‘expertise’ and profile?

      Duno. Just thinking out loud.


  15. One more quick addition (sorry Jeremy): watch how fast your publishing offers dry up once you say no to 1-2 conferences or books tours (family reasons notwithstanding)!

  16. David :


    Thanks for the reference and anything “anthropological” , I’ll gobble up (my undergrad). Didn’t know someone had written a book refuting that other populist rag. If only for that sake, it must be a good read.

    However, I’ll warn you. I’m someone who follows his sniffer. If experience has taught me something to be the case – it’ll take a heck uv a lot of references and researchers to make me do an about face! Empiricism is for empire building, I prefer destruction. Though I do reserve the right at any point to say I am indeed deluded.

    And glad to hear about the affirmative action of the Pecha Kucha at IATEFL – can’t beat those Scandinavians for leading the way in that regard either (doesn’t Sweden mandate equal women / men representation in parliament?). I think this is a good thing, so long as it doesn’t become a slippery slope. (ie. mandating 50% of presenters be below 40 and 50% above ).


    David, I love your robust ‘sniffer’!!! I’m still (actually increasingly) loath to ascribe all this to some gender conspiracy, though! Or even just hormones. There ARE after all some pretty relentless female rugby and football players out there!


  17. Thanx Jeremy for your thoughts about my thoughts. Just a few other follow up ideas.

    1. Totally agree. I think this needs a clear ‘plan’ from those organising events etc. to ensure that all groups are represented – this extends beyond just gender, and certainly when I was on the IATEFL committee, it included making sure non-NESTs were very much part of the plenary line up, as well as those coming from many different countries of the world, and those representing different aspects of our profession from practising teachers to those formulating new theories and a combination of both.

    2. I think overall that yes women do get paid less, but you are right to query this as it needs some qualification (and sorry I didn’t perhaps express this fully in last contribution). Perhaps in the state sector, at entry level in many settings, men and women begin on the same salary (well equal ops law would prevent this in many countries from being any other way thankfully). However, when you examine the situation later down the line, perhaps 10 years or so, a different picture emerges. As you pointed out in relation to your daughter, the number of senior positions filled by women starts to decline, and also those going on maternity leave often ‘miss’ or are overlooked for promotional opportunities. Indeed there is substantial evidence the employers steer away from women of certain ages for fear they will go on maternity leave and become less productive. For me as always this is an institutional issue as the workplace should make space for the right to have a family, and indeed support it. In this day and age it is seen as living in cloud cuckoo land to believe this. These rights were enshrined in many european contexts (and in other countries of the world) and are slowly being eroded again now. The unregulated private sector is much more open about the view that you are only as necessary as you are productive, and I think women are given much worse treatment overall in this respect and that is also reflected in pay.

    3. Men and women are an enhancement to one another in this world. Mixed teams are my favourite place to be as that way you get so many different perspectives. I have always felt confident about standing up and doing presentations etc, and I know plenty of men who would rather not. So the exception to the rules are always too large a population to believe the hype about gender stereotypes. Where there is a difference perhaps is how individuals are assessed. It is more commonplace for strong women to be called ‘opinionated’ or ‘difficult’ than men who exhibit the same behaviour. Ooops there goes that ideology thing again!!! But that is a matter of social perception, rather than actual behaviour.

    4. The mother/father thing is a social issue again and I see it as much at the level of community as within the family itself (i.e. if there was more support outside the family unit, the pressure on the couple would not be so great). I was reading a statistic the other day that showed one of the most common times for divorce and separation is when there are 2 or more children under 5. This is the paradox of parenthood – you end up working to pay someone else to look after your child, and spend whatever little time you have left finding time to ensure a family life which puts a lot of pressure on people. Each family does what is needed to function, and I think its important not to make anyone feel bad for the choices they make because these choice are made in a way that takes into account survival. Somebody has to go out and work more to start with, and in our case, in order for me to do my PhD data collection in Serbia, my partner took on the lion’s share of looking after our child during my absences. As you and Jason both outline, you were/are involved as much as you can be within working schedules etc, but for all of us, we probably wish we could spend more time with our children than we do/did.

    I think where the personal meets the social is the fact that so many women think that when they have children their partners will be more involved and they are not (when we look at it at the level of the average relationship). It is still the case that this is seen as the woman’s responsibility in the unarticulated and taken for granted way that assumption works and the kind of ‘learned helplessness’ that some men are brought up with still. This will only change beyond those who already have the structures in place pre-kids in their relationships for it to be equal, which I sense is most of us talking here, when it becomes part of ‘education’ for men to see looking after children as ‘normal’. The truth is that only by nurturing a child do you build the stronger and deeper bonds that are so important. All the men I know who are involved fully in their kid’s unbringings would be the first to confirm this I am sure – I hope this can become a reality for more fathers and children as they are surely missing out.

    I love the Debbie quote. I have always found how much people talk to be more about them really, and about the context. Everyone has their moments of quietness after all! Yes even me : ) Things have changed when we compare it to 150 years ago. But there has never ever been a shortage of brilliant, dynamic and strong women (and men) at any point in history. Women tend to be overlooked as heroes in historical representation, but they have always been there fighting to change things and are to be found in the books if you know which ones to read! Those women are still around – personally I think there is still work to be done to make sure they stand on a truly equal footing along side all those other groups that are still not being represented properly in ELT.

    Thanks for the chat!

    • Sara,

      thank you, as ever, for illuminating and thoughtful comments. I can’t find fault (not that i would want to) with anything you say.

      I reckon that what is needed, IF the plenary situation needs changing – apart from conference-organiser-thoughtfulness, father-and-mother compromise, is just the kind of change of mindset that Debbie, in her deconstruction of sex and gender myths, is trying to accomplish. In other words (here’s a new manifesto):

      1 Men are not BY NATURE more suitable plenary speakers than women.

      2 Women are not BY NATURE less suited to big speeches than men.

      3 Some men are brilliant plenary speakers. Some are rubbish.

      4 Some women are brilliant plenary speakers. Some are rubbish.

      How about that?


      • Great discussion. And that’s a four point manifesto I can sign up to.

        I wonder though. Something Sara alluded to way back there in the earlier comments… isn’t race more important than gender? I’ve seem plenty of women give plenaries, but never seen a black plenary speaker, male or female.

  18. Agreed. As the propensity to be a good plenary speaker (or any other kind of speaker) is about so much more than gender! Thx for the discussion. Over and out : )

  19. Jeremy, has anyone actually asked conference attendees this sort of basic question? Given your global presence, I think you would be perfectly poised to conduct a simple but very comprehensive survey that would shed light on this from the teacher-attendees point of view (overall globally) but also from one context to another… Might take you a year, but the results would be interesting and much better info to draw conclusions from. Or am I giving you additional work to do?! 🙂

  20. About that great Debbie quote: Actually I do think that the cultural stereotype of women tending to chat and talk and ramble more, and about different things, and in different ways, holds true. And I do think that some men at least will take that as an excuse for not wanting to listen. Maybe it’s because a lot of the men in my life are engineers and geeks, including three of my four older brothers, whereas the women in my life tend to be more like me, chatty and inclusive. But far more male and female teachers seem to me to be “rambling” types, so I don’t really think the stereotype applies in our profession.

    • Hi Anne,

      yes, I think the teaching profession MAY be different??

      But The Debbie Cameron quote was in response to research which actually debunks the ‘women talk more than men’ myth. Listen to any men gossiping in a bar – even of the topic is only (sic) football, and that sounds quite persuasive to me!

      But I am not a gender studies expert of course, and my hunches are just as ‘stereotype-influenced’ as everyone else I expect!

      Thanks for your comment.


  21. I like your manifesto, Jeremy. It rings true.

    I can’t really talk with authority about the bigger issues–I don’t know enough. All I can really do is share my own experience, and perhaps a few observations.

    When my co-authors and I (all female) were first working on Let’s Go, we had children at home. Two of us had infants. Writing was much, much easier than presenting. I could write while my daughter was napping, or in the few hours of the night that she slept. Our editors were (and still are) predominately female.

    Interestingly, while course book writers and editors tend to be female, the majority of resource book writers and the “edited by” names on essay collections tend to be male. I suspect it’s familiarity and marketing–“so-and-so wrote for us before and did a good job” or “his name will help sell the book”–more than any active conspiracy 🙂

    Same for conference plenaries, perhaps. When you’re trying to attract participants to your conference (to pay for venue, and to recoup the fees to bring speakers not paid for by publishers), you’re more likely to go with perceived name value–someone well-known or someone who has a track record for giving riveting plenaries. While the disparity exists, I think it’s often the result of inertia rather than systematic. Women presenters seem to have regional rather than international name value. And I’ve heard great (and lousy) plenaries from both male and female speakers.

    I had occasion to do a series of workshops in Asia many years ago as part of a publisher book tour. I was traveling with a male author of an adult course book. At breakfast one morning, he mentioned how much fun he found these tours because they were like mini-vacations. (His wife was home with their kids.) I realized that part of his preparations for the tour hadn’t included freezing meals for the week he’d be gone, arranging for child care, rides to after school lessons, etc. While I loved doing workshops, it certainly didn’t feel like a vacation, mini or otherwise!

    One additional observation from that tour. The male author and I had the same academic degrees. Generally, he was addressed as “Professor so-and-so” while I was “Miss Barbara.” I don’t believe there was any disrespect intended. Was it a male/female thing? An adult course author/young learner course author thing? Just an Asia-thing? I don’t know. But it was interesting nonetheless.

    I think that social media and the internet may turn out be the great equalizer. As I was able to write in between mommy duties, young women can now blog, or participate in professional discussions from home, on their own time. They can present at online conferences without having to deal with the myriad of details involved with actually traveling to the conferences. In short, the internet gives women an opportunity to develop name value beyond their region.

    I can easily bring to mind several amazing young women who blog, whom I would probably never have heard of if they didn’t have access to the internet. I can also imagine any of them being invited to present at conferences because of the reputation they developed online. It will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

    • Not sure how my reply to your manifesto ended up in the stream BEFORE the manifesto, but it makes me look a bit prescient, doesn’t it? Wonder if this one will end up as a reply to my reply, or somewhere else entirely?

    • Hi Barbara,

      thanks for your comments. In particular, as I said on Twitter, the observation (which I completely share) that social networking may be changing all this. As I’ve said elsewhere I can think of quite a few younger women who have really really impressed me in my PLN and who are appearing as speakers. Social networking does appear to remove barriers of gender, background, age etc and I find that really invigorating.
      I am really interested in your male-travelling colleague’s ‘enjoyment’ comment. I know some great women speakers who profess not to like the whole travelling-author thing (whereas many men do – and you are right we don’t (didn’t, in my case) have to leave food prepared for the kids!).
      It IS all changing, isn’t it.
      Isn’t it?

      • I do believe it is changing. Fingers crossed!

        Blogging, particularly, seems to give everyone equal opportunity to share ideas without having to get time off from school, or from family to travel to a conference (and without having to come up with the conference fee if they have managed the first two hurdles).

        But, while blogging allows women to develop a reputation beyond their geographic region, I think established presenters still have an obligation to mentor by suggesting their names to conference organizers.

    • Oh this is really interesting Barbara. I hope you’re right about social networking opportunities breaking down social barriers. I identified with your point about the preparation that trips can take, specially when your kids are young. I wonder if the ‘Miss Barbara’ thing might have been connected withe the age group of the ‘Let’s go’ audience. If it had been a ‘Technical English’ book, for example, would it have been different?

      • I hope I’m right, too! I think we’re still a bit far from a blogger being invited to give an IATEFL plenary simply by virtue of her online reputation, but it most definitely is an alternate foot in the door (as opposed to writing a well-known book, for example).

        The “Miss Barbara” vs. “Prof. so-and-so” was from the conference organizer in opening comments, so in that case I don’t think it had much to do with my typical audience. The very fact of putting a title of any kind in front of my name was a sign of respect, and I took it as such 🙂

        Now I’m an empty nester and can travel more easily, so I really hope that we get to share one of those author tours one of these days. I think we’d have a lot of fun!

  22. Hi Jeremy,

    When this post first came up, I remember saying to a friend “I’d better not say anything about this as I feel very much like the underdog’ you are all talking about.

    Having read all this very interesting discussion, I wanted to add a couple of small points, not about myself as a conference speaker, but about choosing speakers for conferences, something which I have been involved in for TESOL Greece in the past, like Sara and Barbara.

    Yes, a conference needs names to draw teacher audiences to cover costs and I recall, every single time, looking at what is trending, what new books had been published as well as which author or professor publishers, usually EFL, usually British, were willing to sponsor.

    But how did it happen that on each and every occasion publishers would ALWAYS sponsor a male speaker? I have been trying to recall if perhaps it wasn’t our own fault for choosing male speakers, but I don’t think so.

    Female plenary speakers, of which we did have a fair array were almost always sponsored by USICA (United States Information & Communication Agency) or the HAU (Hellenic American Union, which is a branch of USICA anyway, as bitter experience taught me in my unruly and rebellious youth).

    These speakers, almost always had to report back to USICA on the success of their visit, in terms of networking with important people and institutions in Greece. Their reports are public, posted on the US goverment site. Is this perhaps why they were females? Were they thought to be more effective in this particular way?

    There is no escaping the topic of politics, is there. Sorry if this bothers anyone.

    On the question of gender stereotyping, I wonder if all of us as audience are not to blame for the heavy preference over males. I cannot recall if the notion that “women gossip” but “men disseminate information” was from the “Men are from Mars & Women from Venus” book or from one of Deborah Tannen’s popularized publications, but is this an ingrained view of the sexes that we all have, hence the preference for male plenary speakers?

    There ARE different attitudes to each gender, there ARE things that a male speaker will say and they will be unquestioned or accepted as fine evidence of humour.

    I have been criticising Hugh Dellar as a speaker particularly heavily on my latest blog post for his sense of humour (which, I haste to add, a lot of people seem to love – so maybe I am at fault there) but now that I think about it, I wonder what people would think if they heard a FEMALE speaker deliver the same talk, same puns, same lines, same attitudes….

    The word that comes to mind is not a very flattering one (but personally I hold the same view of the particular speaker during this particular talk even though male).

    This year’s main plenary speaker at TESOL Greece is going to be female. And although I have major issues with the shocking honorarium a small regional conference is dishing out to hear this particular speaker, I do celebrate the fact that she is not sponsored by any agency and that she putting us one up on this gender “contest”.

    • Hi Marisa,

      thanks for your interesting comments. I completely agree that there are ingrained beliefs about gender (like the ‘women gossip’ one – boy you should listen to guys sometimes!!) and that they tend to unconsciously colour our judgments about things. You (I mean we) have to fight quite hard not to be sucked into all that.

      On the subject of speaker styles, your comments about the particularly robust style of speaking that Hugh Dellar adopts (i.e. what would his words sound like if coming from a woman?) bring us right back to the same gender conv. His style WOULD sound strange coming from many women speakers I know. But it would sound pretty strange if I tried to adopt it too, cause it’s just not me. And that’s not a gender thing. Layers of conditioning on top of and underneath that last paragraph I think!!
      That’s an interesting point about USICA and HAU. I hadn’t thought about that. But it IS true of course that a lot of plenary speakers get there because publishers sponsor them and try to get a plenary spot, and quite often they are men. And if publishers aren’t pushing one of your books you tend not to do so much of it.
      Ah, we are all prisoners of our upbringing, conditioning etc…

    • I haven’t been personally conscious of it as a speaker, but reading Marisa’s thoughts made me wonder whether women might hold women to higher standards, and men might hold men to higher standards? I think this has been found to happen with some other aspects of communication too.
      Going back to some questions you raised earlier Jeremy:
      “But do women behave differently on the platform? Are they treated differently?”
      Something I have been conscious of is that when someone puts themselves out there as a plenary speaker, they sometimes attract individuals who challenge them and manage to diminish themselves in the process. I think it might be particularly tough for male challengers when the speaker is female.
      The thing is, if you put someone else down, you often wind up looking smaller yourself, so challenging can be a tricky feat. The challenger might think they’ve posed a ‘healthy debate’ -type question, and they might have got away with it if it had been addressed to a male speaker with a male audience. But if the speaker’s female they can sometimes wind up looking like they’re trying to score points to boost their ego.
      So I suspect female speakers might have an easier time than male speakers when it comes to being challenged. And I could be very wrong about this, but I think female audiences might be more sensitive to people violating politeness maxims like ‘seek agreement’ or ‘make your listener feel good’ in order to score points.

      • Hi Vicki,

        thanks for your comments.

        I have always been fascinated by how speakers (= myself too, obviously) manage questions. I always advise presenters to treat ALL questions as friendly, however hostile they seem. But it IS very difficult to do, I find.

        Do you think there is any truth in the idea that female audiences whilst they may give some men an easy time are nevertheless extremely sympathetic to women who struggle but do well despite this?

        But there you are, you see, I am slipping back into the gender trap, I guess.

        Personally I find male questioners and female questioners extremely difficult to deal with if they ask what I take to be a hostile question (even when it isn’t (see above). And I always feel really insecure if the question from a woman seems very gender-weighted and I immediately start asking myself whether I have fallen into some male idiocy!

        Powerful stuff.


      • I think ‘treat every question as friendly’ is excellent advice. ‘Treat’ is a key word of course, because no speaker should imagine some won’t be hostile. But folks generally side with the person who seems pleasant and reasonable over someone who’s out to score points to inflate their ego.

        But re your question, I reckon whether any sympathy is extended will depend on whether the speaker seems likeable and there’s a good excuse. But I doubt the gender of the speaker has an impact there. I think audiences want to be engaged, stimulated and entertained, so male or female, they will want a speaker to do well and they’ll feel cheesed off if they do a bad job.

    • Hi Tony,

      yes you are right about IATEFL Harrogate (and last year too etc) as I pointed out in my opening blog on this topic. It certainly is the case that more conferences have a decent array of women plenary speakers. But it is still less likely (I think) than having lots of men.

      Still, the comments on this blog have been illuminating about some of the factors that surround this complex issue.

      Thanks for your comments.


  23. Jeremy “Ah, we are all prisoners of our upbringing, conditioning etc…”

    Yes, we are prisoners and we emprison other people too… but :

    “l’important n’est pas ce qu’on a fait de nous, mais ce que nous faisons nous-mêmes de ce qu’on a fait de nous” Sartre.

  24. Barbara Sakamoto :

    I hope I’m right, too! I think we’re still a bit far from a blogger being invited to give an IATEFL plenary simply by virtue of her online reputation, but it most definitely is an alternate foot in the door (as opposed to writing a well-known book, for example).

    The “Miss Barbara” vs. “Prof. so-and-so” was from the conference organizer in opening comments, so in that case I don’t think it had much to do with my typical audience. The very fact of putting a title of any kind in front of my name was a sign of respect, and I took it as such :)

    Now I’m an empty nester and can travel more easily, so I really hope that we get to share one of those author tours one of these days. I think we’d have a lot of fun!

    I have often been introduced at conferences as Professor or Doctor (neither of which I am ashamed to say I have any right to).
    And in the context of ‘Miss Barbara’ that’s quite interesting, isn’t it. You have to be a Prof or a Doc to do a plenary? If you are a man?

  25. Two points:
    1. Yes discrimination may be a problem. So we must:
    a.Encourage women participation as plenary speakers.
    b.Empower women by providing equal opportunities.
    2. Discrimination sometimes comes from women themselves who may value subconsciously male plenary speakers either because of:
    a. lack of self confidence or
    b. social stereotyping of the role of women

    • Hi Mohammed,

      I certainly agree with you that gender discrimination is not always practised exclusively by men! How can it be when many ‘gender-unfair’ behaviour is reinforced by women themselves. But of course this may well be because of their own understanding of society’s expectations etc.

      I hope in the field of plenary-giving at teachers’ conferences, at least, that everyone, both men and women, have begun/are beginning to reassess their thinking in this area! Do you think I am right?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s