Friday, April 10, 2015

Sexism in ELT in Taiwan and Abroad

...or, gender discrimination in English teaching in Taiwan. Especially, but not only, in buxibans.

I know what the average reader is probably thinking: "why are you writing this? There's no gender discrimination If there's any sexism in the industry it's in favor of women! Sometimes schools will say this outright!" (which is true - on some Facebook groups I'm in to keep abreast of what's going on in the job market, I have seen a few "female preferred" or "female teacher wanted" ads). But after years in the industry it's become clear to me that this one area in which sexism runs in favor of women doesn't tell the whole story, and we still have to deal with discrimination in other ways. You might think you've escaped it once you've escaped office work, but surprise! Like invisible airborne fecal matter, sexism is everywhere! Like death, there are no known, foolproof ways to escape it.

Why this post now? Because the other day, I was in a taxi and the driver had ICRT on the radio. A commercial came on - the English translation of the Chinese ad was "sign up today and learn English from beautiful Teacher Emily or clever Teacher Ben!" (Note: at least I am 99% sure this is what I heard, but I only perked up toward the end. If someone else has heard the same commercial and can clarify, I would appreciate it). And because I just read this collection of infuriating stories about soft sexism and thought to myself: that's it. That's what I've felt about the ELT industry for years but not been able to clearly voice. It's not that we're actively or openly discriminated against (which I admit men, in jobs that involve teaching children, often are). It's that when we get there we're faced with all sorts of "soft sexism", from assumptions about our strengths to expectations of how we'll act to overhearing blatantly offensive remarks.

I mean, think about that ad. First, what do Emily's looks have to do with her teaching ability? Second, note the comparison of the woman noted for her looks, but the man noted for his brains. Which do you think will get more inherent respect as a Real Teacher, and which will not be taken seriously as a teacher but find her classes filled with a bunch of dudes looking for a masturbatory fantasy?

So, some thoughts:

1.) It's true that women are preferred candidates for some positions, but not all.

As I noted above, I hear this pretty often: "there's no sexism in English teaching, or if there is, it's in favor of women and against men, because buxibans prefer female teachers!"

There is some truth to that. A lot of cram schools do prefer female teachers. And yes, that is also sexist. If something favors women and hurts men, that also falls under the rubric of "sexism", even if men are generally privileged in other (read: almost every other) way.

That said, this particular way of looking at things only goes a short way to describing the kaleidoscope of gendered expectations in the industry.

-    The underlying assumption isn't that we're better teachers, it's that we're "good with children"

I have to laugh at people who think women are preferred for certain jobs because owners think we're better teachers generally. It's not really true - teaching is seen as a women's profession, but just as in the USA, when most people picture a schoolteacher (i.e. someone who teaches kids) they picture a woman, but when they picture a corporate trainer (which is a kind of teacher) or professor, they often picture a man. We're not seen as 'better teachers' - if anything, the areas of teaching where the default expectation is a man at the head of the class get more respect, and the areas where the expectation is a woman get less. Schoolteachers definitely get less respect than corporate trainers - to the point that I made it clear for years that I was a *corporate trainer* (assumption: I work in companies and teach adults, both true), not an *English teacher* (I was, but the assumption is I work at a school and teach children - neither of which are true).

We're seen instead as 'good with children', which plays into a whole host of sexist assumptions about innate talents of men and women. Even if those are true on a general scale, which they may be (evidence is inconclusive enough that I won't say either way), on an individual scale they're hogwash. I am not good with children. I'm OK, about as OK as any non-creepo guy. We're seen as 'nurturers'. Generally speaking, across entire populations this may be true. Individually, again, hogwash. I am not really a nurturer. I like kids for a few minutes. Then they poop on something or start crying and I can hand them back to their parents because NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE.

So we're stereotypically placed in classrooms where people imagine women, generally, are suitable. Children. Kids' books. Colorful rugs. Toys. Whatever. We get those jobs, sure, but we get them based on a whole host of sexist assumptions about women's natural talents with youngsters.

These jobs also tend to pay less - more on that below. 

-    Have you taken a look at the staff rolls of some of the more hardcore buxibans?

Seriously, have a look at Aces' website. I'd laugh if it weren't so sad - all those branches, and one, just one, female teacher. A whole thread popped up about this on Taiwanease - the assumptions inherent in that, I will cover further down in the list. Needless to say I do not buy the argument that Aces had literally no female teachers (and I have it on good authority that Mo Da Wei is the same way) until recently, and now has exactly one, because they want "qualified long-termers and those tend to be men". I don't think those tend to be men - I can rattle off about 10 names of qualified female teachers, long-termers even, in Taiwan, without thinking. I doubt the "there are more long-term qualified men" line is true if I can name that many without even having to think about it.

An upshot? The qualified female long-term teachers I know would never settle for the kind of work and pay offered at Aces or Mo Da Wei. We tend to look for something better. The women I know who are serious about this work tend to go to international schools, universities, or do government work. Yay us!

Hell, don't even tell me that women dominate in ELT when I am only one of two women at two of my three jobs (I am one of two female IELTS examiners at my center here, and one of two IELTS exam class teachers at the school that employs me to teach them). How can you say women dominate when, once we find ourselves teaching adults, not kids, we often find ourselves alone among men?

-Teaching English to adults - especially Business English - is something of a sausage fest.

I don't want to say anything bad about the school where I currently teach one or two classes (depending on how busy things are) - they're actually quite good: the pay is fair, the DOS is knowledgeable, the support staff tries hard, they respect our schedules and personal lives. But, I can't help but notice I'm the only female teacher, and that they don't seem to be trying particularly hard to do anything about that. The last place where I worked, we did have quite a few women, to their credit. But, my fairly extensive knowledge of the adult English landscape in Taipei leads back to this: my experience at my current school is more the norm than at my former "management consulting" company. If you get out of teaching kids (i.e., out of the section of the industry that people mostly think women are 'suited to') you don't meet many female teachers at all.

One might argue that this is because female teachers would rather teach kids, but I don't really think that's true. I know quite a few female teachers, and none would prefer teaching kids. Even among not-so-qualified teachers and former teachers, the preference is almost always for teaching adults. Not just for men and women alike: the women seem even more gung-ho on wanting to teach adults.

Regarding business English specifically, I have definitely noticed that I had to work harder to earn the same respect afforded without question to male colleagues. The director and some clients seemed to automatically assume that, for example, "Good Presenter" = "Man In Suit", and even if she were wearing a suit, a woman just couldn't live up to that. I have seen Men In Suits coast in and have it be assumed that he knows what he's talking about, where I have to spend the first half hour of every seminar proving that I do, often moreso than that Man In Suit. There was really no question. It was just assumed - women = good with children, men = good at business.

That's extremely anecdotal, but it is my experience.

When we aren't thought of as better candidates because we're good with kids (even if we're not), we're considered for teaching positions based on our looks. Often openly.

You have not truly worked in ELT until you've been around when the owner and manager are trying to decide who hire and the conversation goes to which woman was better looking. Sometimes this will be couched in terms of what will draw students (which is still lookist bullshit). Other times it's just more blatant lookist bullshit.

2.) Just because we get jobs doesn't mean we're treated as well as male teachers or that sexist assumptions and expectations don't come knockin'.

It's something like this - nothing that can definitively be proven as sexism, but problematic nonetheless.

- Expectations that we'll be "easier"

...because we're female and therefore demure, meeker, quieter, more easygoing, more willing to get along even if it means we get an unfair cut. I can't tell you how many times at various former jobs, bosses seemed surprised to find that I was just as confident as my male peers, that I could not be sweet-talked into accepting unfair circumstances, that I'm probably the least meek person you'll ever meet, that I'm willing to fight if I have to, that I'm no less demanding than a man, and that while I see the merits of "go along to get along", it's hardly my life motto. "Go along to get along, unless you're getting screwed, in which case flip some tables!" is more like it.

And yet, even when my boss or manager knows this about me, I have definitely experienced continuing surprise that I don't fit the stereotype in their heads of how a young female teacher should act (I'm not that young anymore, but I look years younger than my age - I can often pass for 25, but I'm 34 - so I still kind of count as a "young woman" to many people).

Here's an example: the director (read: guy who called himself the director but acted like a more apt title would be Wandering Office Buffoon) of my former company would routinely show up 20, 30, 40, 60 minutes late for meetings with teachers, like we weren't important enough to be on time for. We all complained about this. One day after being left in a meeting room for 20 minutes after our scheduled meeting time, I got up and walked out. Nobody saw me leave. They called me - "where are you?? [Director] is waiting!"
Me: Our meeting was supposed to start at 10. It's 10:25. I left. I will wait ten minutes when we have a scheduled meeting - everyone's late sometimes. I will not wait 20. If you do it again I will walk out again. Keep doing it and I will quit."
Them: "But...the director! He was busy! He's waiting!"
Me: "I don't care. My time is important too."

They didn't do it again - I'm kind of scary when I want to be - but at our next meeting (on time!) I got treated to a long passive-aggressive screed by the director that didn't target me specifically but went on about how he liked 'ladies' because we were 'patient' and 'we always understand that everyone is busy' so we 'don't mind being flexible'.

Because my reaction to passive aggression is to pretend it isn't there - if you aggressively refuse to understand, then that tactic simply doesn't work - I reacted with "Really? I don't think so. In my experience women expect others to be on time just as much as men do."

That didn't go over well, obviously, but I'm not one to take that sort of attitude without resistance.

-    Sexist things either said to us, about us, or that we hear floating around

Either from other teachers, or from local staff or the owner of the school/institute/department/whatever.

In my decade plus in ELT, I have either personally seen, heard or heard about:

-- Male teachers, including partners in seminar teaching, ogling and openly discussing the physical attributes of female students.

-- Male teachers openly making sexist remarks about women - possibly other teachers, often students, most often, random women they've met, gone out with, slept with or just know.

-- The male director telling a female teacher not to leave her husband because "men cheat, that's just what they do, it doesn't mean he doesn't love you, it's a woman's job to forgive the man".

-- The younger brother of the owner of the school where I worked in China comparing me (sort of tall, curvy, very Polish-looking) to my coworker (slightly taller, slender, Western European looking) based on looks and therefore who "took care of herself"

-- Talk about how "ladies" will like or not like this or that: including one friend's experience of a male student saying the class should not discuss American politics because "the ladies probably want to talk about fashion!"

-- Female support staff interrogated, belittled and forced into unpaid overtime. Turnover among male support staff, what few were hired, was higher, even though they got less of this treatment.

-- Watched as the owner of the school where I worked in China, Ms. Huang, sat back quietly and pretended to be an employee while her partner, who was most definitely not an owner or co-owner, pretended to be the owner and director in front of parents, because "parents expect to see a man at the head of the business". 

-- Watching every female teacher receive a gift (a Zojirushi thermos) that was small and pink, when all the men received full-size silver thermoses. I gave mine away and went out and bought my own silver thermos, because fuck that shit, I hate pink.

-- Having crap mansplained to me: "Hey, in the sentence 'We're all excited about the party', what part of speech is 'excited'?" Me: "Past participle adjective. It's like a past participle like you'd see in a passive sentence, but functions as an adjective." Guy: "Well, you KNOW that words can change their part of speech based on how they are used in the sentence." YES. ALSO, EAT ME. Or, "you know, it's best to make sure with each activity that you have the students do something. Not just read, but read and fill in the gaps, something like that." "Have I ever put together an activity that was not student-centered?" "No, I just..." "You just nothing. Stop it."

--Being handed a new work dress code that, while generally acceptable, is much more 'specific' in terms of women's clothing, noting shoe types, hem lengths and more, while saying very little about men's clothing: not even that it should be 'tidy'. Women were told not to wear "tight" clothing, without regard to the fact that men often wear sloppy or too-tight clothing. We did manage to fight this successfully and have a more egalitarian dress code implemented, but the fact that it was included in its original form at all was a problem.

--Having to fight through rolled eyes and obvious sighs of impatience as we, the two female teachers, did fight for a fairer dress code.

--Fighting with people posting obviously sexist job ads (e.g. "young female teacher wanted") and having their retorts and other replies shore up the sexism ("the students want a female teacher", or "it's for young children, women are better with young ones, I would want a female teacher for my child too") rather than helping you fight it.

- We tend to work abroad or outside the West, where sexism is more overt

I don't want to say it's a cultural issue, but it is. It is more acceptable in many of the countries where we work to be overtly sexist, especially in the work sphere. Hell, despite it being against the law, it is still considered somewhat acceptable in Taiwan to advertise for a 'female' teacher, or to ask for a picture with one's application. It is more acceptable for the boss to openly discriminate, though that too is illegal. Female teachers encounter more sexism in everyday life - though there are also advantages. For example, I do feel that casual sexism is worse in Taiwan than the USA. But, random violence against women (e.g. being shoved in a car and raped) is far, far less common. It's harder for us to date, form relationships, make friends or put up with bullshit from bosses who come from cultures where their behavior gets more of a pass.

So if you wonder why at times there seem to not be many of us in ELT, there ya go. The guy gets a local girlfriend, marries her, starts his own school or gets out of ELT and settles down in his new country. The woman encounters sexism at work, has trouble dating, gets sick of casual everyday sexism and leaves.

That's a massive simplification but I've seen the pattern countless times. 

Not being taken seriously for our professional capabilities

Ever worked in an office where you felt that not only did men talk over you, but when you did speak up, that you weren't really listened to? But that when a male colleague said the same thing, that it was automatically greeted with serious nods of approval? Or, as above, ever feel that your male colleague in a suit who doesn't know much about a topic or the methodology of how to teach it gets the benefit of the doubt whereas you, knowledgeable as you may be, have to prove yourself? Ever have a seminar full of students actually refer to you, before they figure things out, that you are the assistant teacher and the man is the lead teacher, when in fact you are training him? Ever propose an entire redesign to a crappy e-mail English seminar and offer to revamp it yourself (for a fee of course) and have to fight for the director to see that the seminar as-is really is crappy (even when every other teacher agrees with you), and then have them refuse to use it until the director 'checks' it? All this after seeing a male trainer mention that the English for Meetings seminar needs a revamp and have that accepted without question, offered money to re-do it, and then have it used without the director having the faintest idea what's in it? Ever seen a male colleague request changes to material, and then watch the director ask a female teacher to make them for free, and when she refused, offering to pay the man to do it?

I have.

3.) We may not suffer from lower starting salaries for the same work, the well-documented issues surrounding negotiating strategies and sexism still hang over our heads.

Ellen Pao is quite right about this: if a woman doesn't negotiate aggressively and as such, doesn't get raises on par with similarly-capable male peers, she's told to lean in, be more aggressive, step up her game,  it's her own fault she didn't get those raises. If a woman does negotiate aggressively, she's told she's "difficult" or "a bitch" or "hard to work with" or "greedy and cares more about money than her work". And still doesn't get the same raises. You're screwed if you do, screwed if you don't. As Pao says, it's like being told to thread a needle that has no hole.

It's not much different in English teaching. My current part-time employer is pretty good about this: I was hired at an acceptable rate on par or higher than male colleagues' starting pay. My former employer? Male colleagues would go in, say they want a raise, negotiate a bit, and get it. It all happened in one meeting and it was a given that they had every right to expect a certain amount just as the company could make a counter-offer. I would go in, say I want a raise, and get "oh we have to think about it, let's have a meeting in a few weeks, we'll see what we can offer you". I would say outright "well, it's a two-way street. I have ideas and expectations too". I wouldn't have said that if we all got the same treatment, but the fact was, we didn't. I had to be blunt because I was getting sub-par treatment. I would get the screws put to me - talked down to about how I don't really deserve it but they're so kind to consider it, asked for concessions male colleagues weren't, told I'd get fewer classes if I got higher pay.

As far as I can tell, and it's not like we didn't talk about these things, male colleagues got none of that.

4.) We do suffer from lower starting salaries when employers stereotype us as teachers of children, not adults.

It's a fact of the industry: jobs teaching adults, being seen as better, more challenging jobs requiring stronger qualifications, tend to pay better. So when women are stereotyped as teachers of children and the adult classes are overwhelmingly taught by men, we earn less to begin with.

5.) When you point out these issues, the same dismissiveness applies, often from other expats.

I went into this above, noting that when I pointed this out on an online forum I got all sorts of nonsense back about how there are just more qualified long-term male teachers, or how "well the owners can do whatever they want, this is Taiwan, they own the business, deal with it". You get nonsense like "well *I* don't think there's any sexism" (coming from white men usually - not exactly the voices of personal experience on issues women have noted as affecting their lives) "because *I* have some female friends who say there isn't". Or worse, "maybe you're having those problems because you're just a bitch/not a very good teacher/not likable". Even if you are speaking more generally about issues you've seen impact people who are not just you. Oh no, if your experience doesn't conform to their assumptions about what your experience should be, the fault is automatically yours. It couldn't be that their assumptions are wrong.

So, the same old nonsense - if you notice a systemic issue affecting a group, especially a group you belong to - the problem can't possibly be the system. It has to be YOU. You're just terrible. You're not competent. You are "difficult". Or "but I saw an ad once that said 'female teachers preferred' so it's actually sexist against men!" without bothering to unpack that statement. Yes, ads that specifically ask for female teachers are sexist. But that doesn't mean the entire industry is biased in favor of women.

6.) Despite all of this, ELT/Applied Linguistics/TEFL at the academic level is a remarkably gender-egalitarian field.

Ever read McKay's English as an International Language?
Lightbown and Spada's How Languages are Learned?
Ur's A Course in Language Teaching or Discussions That Work?
Hedge's Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom?
Bailey's Learning About Language Assessment?
Graves' Designing Language Courses?

That would be Sandra Lee McKay, Patsy Lightbown, Nina Spada, Penny Ur, Tricia Hedge, Kathleen Bailey and Kathleen Graves.

The world of ELT in academic circles is littered with women. Nobody would argue that it is not an egalitarian field, at that level (or if they would, I'm not sure why).

There's no evidence at all, then, to support the idea that men are more drawn to teaching language, or teaching adults (the two most popular and respected certifications that are not Master's degrees or something like a PGCE are specifically aimed at teaching adults). There's no reason the field has to be as problematic as it is. There's no reason why the issues within it have to so closely mimic the ones women face in offices and business culture. It just doesn't have to be this way.

7.) Keeping all that in mind, do you really think teaching is a low-paid field because it's not valuable?

I hear a lot of "well women make less money than men not because there's a pay gap, but because they work in professions that tend to pay less. That's their own fault for choosing those professions!"

First, even the US government acknowledges, via actual real data and not the opinion of some butthurt Whitey McDude ejaculated onto a computer screen, that this is not true, the pay gap exists even when you account for this issue.

Second, it doesn't seem to occur to these guys that perhaps professions women tend to enter pay less because they are female dominated. It's not like nurses, teachers or care workers for the elderly, for example, are not valuable. Society certainly needs them all. A lot. Almost certainly more than they need hedge fund managers and almost anyone who styles themselves a "consultant", "in marketing", "in finance" or "a social media expert". Pretty much that entire spat of well-paid jobs could go and the world and its economy would keep in ticking, but try keeping the world going without any teachers or nurses. 

I honestly do not buy the idea that these jobs are poorly paid because - or only because - people go into them with a sense of 'calling'. People also become doctors because they feel they have a calling, and doctors are very well-paid indeed. These professions are poorly paid because a lot of people see women doing work and inherently feel that that work is not valuable. They probably don't consciously realize this, and would certainly deny it if called out, but it's there. There's a long history of expecting that yeah, women should do work, whether that's in the home or not, but that that work should be free - gratis, voluntary, out of the kindness of their hearts. A lot of the organizations (some valuable, some not) that rely on free labor are female-staffed. If you got men into those positions, just see how fast they turn into paid work.

This was also a phenomenon in mid-century America, one that Betty Freidan chronicled in The Feminine Mystique. I can't find an online quote of this, but it noted in some detail the tendency of newly-built suburbs to be held together by women: PTA women, women acting as counselors, women setting up public services, women building playgrounds, women setting up makeshift chambers of commerce. All for free. When those suburbs became established towns, those jobs started to become paid jobs: economic development, guidance counseling, town planning and zoning, the local chamber of commerce - - and went directly to men.

So, why is English teaching such a poorly paid profession? Not only because at the very bottom there's a slew of twentysomething know-nothings (no love lost: I used to be one) willing to work for crap wages, and not only because we're seen as disposable dancing foreign monkeys to a lot of cram schools. Not only because people who want to travel are willing to go into it without many benefits, and many are temporary. Not only because you can get your start with nothing but a Bachelor's degree and literally no experience. 

But also because it's a profession where women, even if they don't dominate (again, look at Aces' website), are preferred. 

Move that over to corporate training/Business English, where men dominate and are preferred, and see how quickly the pay goes up. 

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