Wednesday, May 6, 2015


There's been some change
But we're still outsiders
If everybody's here
Then Hell knows we ride alone

Franz Ferdinand, "Outsiders"

Around the same time that I wrote my long diatribe on sexism in ELT in Taiwan (and generally, but my experiences are Taiwan-focused), there was a presentation going on at IATEFL about women in ELT, especially in the upper/academic echelons. And, a new special interest group, Teachers as Workers or TaWSIG, was submitted and rejected by IATEFL.

IATEFL gave a reason for the rejection that makes a lot of sense, but I still feel there is value in an organization aimed at promoting teachers as workers globally, even though such an organization could never really interfere in labor issues at any sort of local level (local, perhaps affiliated organizations would have to do that). But English teachers around the world share enough common issues - from low pay to a tolerance of untrained newcomers to management that knows nothing about ELT to a lack of CPD to outright workplace abuse - that a global organization would serve the useful purpose of awareness-raising and knowledge-sharing, so that local associations (unions, really) would have an easier time of forming.

Note: I am not a member of IATEFL. I will probably become one at some point, but for the moment I'm not.

These two points - teachers as workers and women in ELT - are more interrelated than you might think.

I want to now go wildly off topic with a tangent point. I'll bring it back, I promise. If any of you watch Mad Men (if you don't, you should), you'll be familiar with storylines in the show where men (Don and Roger mostly) who otherwise look out for their female coworkers (Joan and Peggy) fail to support them in crucial ways at crucial points. For example, when Joan was being harassed by a copywriter and Peggy went to Don with the problem, only to be told to fire him herself (a great response in 2015, but not in the mid-1960s where a woman firing a man was fraught with gender politics that have faded a great deal today), or at points when Peggy was ready to move ahead but needed a leg up from Don just because that's what the working world demanded at the time - and didn't get it, leading to her leaving the firm for awhile. The most notorious of these plot points is when Joan was pressured to sleep with an executive from Jaguar's dealership association. She doesn't want to do it. Neither Don nor Roger want her to do it. And yet, she sees her options: go through with it to secure the account, or don't and see no immediate fallout but watch her horizons dissolve at work through watching herself be blamed indirectly for losing a major client.

Peggy and Joan mostly look out for themselves, but they live in a world of deep institutional bias: the male characters often take this for granted and expect that looking out for oneself sometimes means you can do it all the time. This is true in a world with no, or little, institutional bias. But that's not the world we live in. So, Don goes to Joan and tells her she "doesn't have to do it" (except it's too late), and she smiles sadly and says "you're one of the good ones".

It's clear what she means: you mean well, but when it comes down to it, you aren't going to support me in not doing this in the way I need you to if I am going to have any future at this company. And she was right - she needed the strong support of a person in an influential position to even take the option to not sleep with the Jaguar exec, and she knew she wasn't going to get anything more than words.

That's how it works when you're on the bad end of systemic sexism. You can look out for yourself most of the time, but there are times when you need people at the top to get the conversation going so your interests can really be put out there.

Note to regular readers: I will be referencing this scene again in a future post. Keep an eye out.

Back to the point of this post, for now.

If I were to distill my last post on this topic to its core elements it would be:

1.) Female English teachers are stereotyped as teachers of children, and as such it may be easier to get those jobs (in many cases employers offering them outright insist on female teachers), but those jobs tend to be poorly-paid, or at least not as well paid as teaching adult English, creating a push toward lower salaries for female teachers. Beyond lower salaries, it's harder for people teaching ESL to children to access basic CPD (continuing professional development), let alone the more academic levels of ELT.

2.) The majority of CELTA course attendees may be women, but it's actually fairly rare to meet a female Director of Studies. A lot of books in the field were written by women, but the majority of big names do tend to be men.

3.) ELT as a profession may be more egalitarian than others (and I believe it is), but as an international profession, we teachers come in contact with a lot of non-Western cultures that have their own ideas about gender and the role of women. It is quite common to be treated as an equal through your training only to come up against a deeply sexist boss.

4.) When women do get jobs teaching adult English, we still face discrimination: learners often mistake the "guy in a suit" for the lead trainer on any Business English course. I have had to prove to students that I am, in fact, the lead teacher and that guy in a suit over there may well be a trainee! That aforementioned sexist boss may shunt us over to soft-skills classes (which pay less) because he thinks they're more "suitable" for women.

I mean, I went into freelance teaching because I was sick of the rampant sexism at my former employer, starting with the director but really just going all the way down the pike. I felt that, as a woman in Business English, the only way I was going to get paid what I was worth would be to go it alone. And lo, I was right.

(Note: outside of my private classes, I have no problems with my current part-time employers. But I've been burned and so for now, Hell knows I ride alone). 
This poses its own problems - as a freelancer, I have no access to CPD unless I make it happen myself. Nobody invites or sends me to conferences, nobody gives me access to important ELT journals so I can keep up on the latest research in the field.

All of these issues are related to teachers as workers - from systemic sexism to choosing freelancing to escape bad working conditions. Sexism in the workplace is a worker issue. Salary differentials due to being pushed down different career tracks is a worker issue. Overcoming learner bias is something of a pedagogical issue (I am not sure what it falls under - affective filter?), but also a worker issue as to a lot of us, our learners are also our clients. Being present in large numbers - majority numbers! - on courses like the CELTA but not nearly equal let alone a majority in plenary speaker or director of studies roles is a sign of institutional bias, and as such is a worker issue.

Gender in ELT may be just one aspect of being a teacher who is a worker, but an important one that merits debate.

And debate it people did. I do recommend listening to the IATEFL talk, and Scott Thornbury's blog has a very long comments section (many comments are by me, but not all!) on this and related topics.

But, I have to say, I still feel disappointed. Debating this at IATEFL is great, but let's be honest - IATEFL has limited reach. Most of the private language schools that perpetuate these problems in the industry don't even know what IATEFL is, let alone care what they say about workplace conditions. Hell, most don't even know or care what the CELTA is and that's the most basic TEFL qualification there is.

So, in a way, TaWSIG not going through IATEFL may actually be better for it in the long run. Working at a more grassroots level where it can have more of an impact for workers whose employers couldn't give a toss about IATEFL may well turn out to be an advantage.

I'm also disappointed because, if you read Thornbury's post, well, he basically says that while there's room for debate on women's issues, that non-native speaker teacher (NNEST) issues are more important. It's great that he's getting the word about TaWSIG out there. And I completely agree with the need to also focus on the inclusion of NNESTs.

But, I was disappointed with the horribly cliched way he pivoted the discussion away from women in ELT in order to talk about NNESTs. First mentioning that the incoming and outgoing presidents of IATEFL were women (which is a good point, but comes across as not much different than "why are we talking about racism when America has a Black president?"), and then saying that the discussion of women in ELT was "distracting" people from a more important issue. Which reeks - reeks - of the same thing being done every time women's issues come up for public debate. "Yes, yes, we can talk about that, but not now, this other thing is more important, just wait, we'll get to you."

1848: "Yes, we know you ladies lack suffrage, but what's really important is slavery, you'll get the vote someday." 1963: "Yes, we know you feel dissatisfied and shut out of the chance at meaningful careers or even to be taken seriously as anything other than a housewife or mother, but what's really important is civil rights." 1970s: "There's a lot of shit going on right now so will you women's libbers please shut your traps for awhile? We'll get to you." 2015: "We already have equality even though many people deny that a well-documented pay gap exists, we have bigger things to deal with, we can talk about this later...or never."

It's not that those other issues weren't important - they all inarguably were. But they all shunted women's issues to the backseat time and time again, to the point where we are still waiting for equal rights explicitly stated in the constitution, we are still waiting for a roadmap to equal pay, and we are still fighting to retain control of our bodies and health care rights.

I know this wasn't his intention, and that he wouldn't disagree that both issues merit a discussion, but that's not how it came across, and that's not, I am sure, how most readers will take it. They'll take it as yet another "sure, we could talk about that, but let's not. This other issue is more important."

Which, if anything, was a blow to the discussion for those of us who see women in ELT as a major issue: we might have been better off if he'd mentioned TaWSIG and not brought up women at all. At least then there wouldn't be an established figure in the ELT world telling everyone our conversation isn't as important, or is distracting people from real issues.

So...the whole thing left me with a big "gee, THANKS" feeling.

Which brings us back to Mad Men. In a world of institutional bias, disadvantaged groups need a leg up. Thornbury - arguably the most prominent name in ELT at the moment - had the opportunity to give women one. A discussion started by him might have had some impact, at least in awareness-raising or inspiring people to think a little more about their situations and the situation of women in the industry.

Instead he told everyone to move right along, nothing to see here.

Posts like this are made by...the good ones. And that's a damn shame.

It's not that a person of influence is obligated to start discussions about whatever people might want them to - certainly everyone has the right to their pet issues. But, it's disappointing when someone of influence actually makes things worse for your own pet issue.

I want to add here, though it will be discussed at greater length in another post, that I not only feel like an outsider in adult ELT. I also feel like one being in the private sector, a freelancer even, in an industry where access to higher echelons is through academia. IATEFL folks can talk about these things at length, but it doesn't really affect us on the private side. There needs to be a bridge, because otherwise it's academics talking about academia, with little real-world effect. I'd like that to change as well, and I'll explore it at length - at great length, because you know me - later on.

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