Three Reasons We Should All Be (ELT) Feminists

by Katy Simpson

“Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable. Both men and women are resistant to talk about gender, or are quick to dismiss the problems of gender. Because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We Should All Be Feminists

It can be hard to discuss topics you feel passionate about without ‘turning people off’. Perhaps you are evangelical about materials-light teaching, or feel strongly about inequality in ELT between so-called ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ speakers of English; or, maybe you are that person in the staffroom who is passionate about drinking ‘real’ coffee as opposed to instant. If so, you might know what it feels like to see people roll their eyes, muttering “there she goes again…”. When it comes to feminism, it can be even harder as men sometimes feel personally attacked by what you are saying. As one wounded-looking manager said to me, “it sounds like you have a vendetta against men”. But this article is an appeal to everyone. Men can be amazing feminists, and women can be terrible feminists – after all, no one is immune to the sexist images and messages thrown at us by the media from a young age. As writer Caitlin Moran says, “I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion’”.

Here are three reasons why women in ELT need your support…

1) Many ELT jobs are hourly-paid, freelance, and lacking in security and protection.

For women, this can be problematic because…

There are few positions with maternity leave, which can make it financially difficult to remain in ELT if you want children. Even if you can afford to take time off to have a baby, there might be no guarantee of teaching hours upon your return because there is often little job protection. You might want to start by going back part-time, but perhaps the timetable does not allow for such flexibility. If your employer has several hourly-paid teachers to choose from, there might be little incentive for the school to be flexible and supportive.

If you feel vulnerable in your employment, you are also less likely to feel able to speak out about sexism. A materials writer, for example, risks damaging their relationship with a publisher by repeatedly criticising their gender representations in coursebooks. Universities are notoriously sexist places to work. Zero hours contracts are used by 46% of universities in the UK to deliver teaching, according to the University and College Union, and the figure is likely to be higher in English Language departments where pre-sessional courses are mostly staffed by teachers on short-term contracts. In such a precarious situation, how can we expect people to feel empowered to tackle sexual harassment, let alone the insidious everyday examples of sexism that seem too insignificant to mention when viewed in isolation.

There is even less protection on the Internet. As the concept of becoming a ‘teacherpreneur’ takes off, women not only face the regular challenges of setting up an online business, but may

also have to deal with unwanted attention, and even online abuse. Men who set up an online business are far less likely to be bombarded with comments about their physical appearance and questions about their marital status – something which I have dealt with on an almost daily basis since setting up an online business.

2) ELT is a small world and knowing the ‘right people’ can help you to get ahead.

For women, this can be problematic because…

Women are often uncomfortable promoting their achievements. They are more likely to attribute their success to teamwork or luck than to their individual hard work and skills. But if opportunities in ELT are dependent on the right person thinking that you have what it takes (e.g. to train up as CELTA tutor), then it is important to put yourself forward, to sell yourself, and to make sure you are being given credit for the good work you are doing. For many women this does not come naturally, perhaps because “societal expectations for female behaviour traditionally, and enduringly, value modesty and collaboration” (Forbes – “Own your success: Why modest isn’t the best policy”). Self-promotion, therefore, risks intimidating people – and potentially alienating the very person who you might need to impress.

However, in many cases, women are not simply being modest; they often genuinely underestimate their own achievements. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, draws heavily on research in her book Lean In, to show how women tend to experience imposter syndrome more intensely than men, concluding that:

“Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is.”

Laura Bates, in her book Everyday Sexism, points to another issue which can affect women in an industry like ELT, where sharing ideas is such an integral part of communication with colleagues. She suggests that women might experience “their ideas being disregarded without consideration only to have male colleagues repeat them verbatim moments later to praise and reward”. Indeed, this became so problematic for women in the White House in President Obama’s administration that they started employing the strategy of ‘amplification’, i.e. repeating the points that other women made, using their name:

“This worked by giving credit to the woman who made the point and forcing the men in the room to recognise her contribution” (The Telegraph – “Obama’s female staffers came up with an ingenious way to get their voices heard”)

This technique could be used in any staffroom meeting, but it could also be used in the wider ELT community, particularly to amplify the voices of women in contexts where they might have difficulty making their voices heard on a day-to-day basis.

3) ELT professionals often enjoy more freedom than other teachers.

For women, this can be problematic because…

As with any job, you might share your working environment with colleagues who have opinions about women that you do not share. Unlike a mainstream secondary school teacher, however, the teacher of a General English class in a private language school usually has far greater freedom over the topics and materials used in class. We all build up unconscious biases over time, and we are likely to take those biases into the classroom. Even if we do not have freedom over the topics and materials to use in class, we may have freedom in the way we choose to present them, the extension questions we ask, and the responses we make to student input. It can be extremely frustrating to share a staffroom or a class with a colleague whose views you not only disagree with, but find so personally offensive.

This freedom extends to entire structures of organisations within ELT. Most ELT managers started their careers as teachers, not as managers, and are likely to have had little training in management before taking up their position. As such, they might not be aware of how their unconscious biases affect their expectations of female employees. This has implications in contexts such as performance reviews. Fortune magazine gathered a corpus of 248 performance reviews from men (141) and women (107) in technology companies:

“There’s a common perception that women in technology endure personality feedback that their male peers just don’t receive. Words like bossy, abrasive, strident, and aggressive are used to describe women’s behaviors when they lead; words like emotional and irrational describe their behaviors when they object. All of these words show up at least twice in the women’s review text I reviewed, some much more often. Abrasive alone is used 17 times to describe 13 different women. Among these words, only aggressive shows up in men’s reviews at all. It shows up three times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.” (Fortune – The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews)

Whilst ELT is obviously quite different from the technology industry, the managers behind those performance reviews are likely to have received more training in management than an ELT manager. It stands to reason that ELT managers, therefore, might be even less aware of these types of potential pitfalls.

So, what does it mean to be (an ELT) feminist?

These three features of the ELT industry are, of course, generalisations. That said, the points in this article are all based on either my own experiences or those of colleagues’, and in that sense are also narrow, since they largely reflect my teaching background within the private language school sector, and my privileges as a white, non-disabled, middle class British woman. The aim of this article is not to paint a complete picture of the industry. Nor is the aim to point the finger of blame – after all, issues such as lack of job security are part of a ‘bigger picture’ which very few of us have the power to change. However, many of us within ELT enjoy a comparatively

large amount of freedom – and with freedom comes responsibility. Whether we are teachers, trainers, managers, or materials writers, we can all look for ways to make our little corner of the industry more accessible and equal. On a day-to-day basis, we can…

· Challenge our own and others’ biases.

· If a woman in your staffroom is criticised for the way she speaks or behaves, ask yourself / others if you would feel the same way if a man had done or said the same thing.

· When you send an email of thanks or praise, why not copy in the colleague’s line manager, because she might not voice this success herself.

· Try to raise the issue if you are concerned by problematic gender representations in a colleague’s classroom materials.

· Call out colleagues (men and women) who repeatedly fail to credit women for their contribution, or whose ‘banter’ goes too far.

· If you are a successful woman in ELT who feels they have already ‘made it’, ask yourself what you can do to put the ladder back down for other women following behind you, especially those less privileged.

We are so accustomed to the systems and structures as they are, that it can be difficult for many women, let alone men, to see the invisible forces that combine to hold some women back. Start small. Simply be alert to the everyday, off-hand, seemingly insignificant comments which can leave women feeling patronised, side-lined, harshly judged, objectified, or silenced. Name these remarks for what they are: sexism – and if you want our industry to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, then name yourself a feminist.

To read more about this topic, check out the Fair List, Gender Equality ELT, Nicola Prentis’ article for One Stop English, and the Women in ELT group on Facebook.

Author’s Bio: Katy Simpson is a teacher and materials writer with an MA in English Language. She is currently based in Japan, having previously taught in Thailand, the UAE and the UK. Her principle ELT interest is pronunciation, particularly in English as a Lingua Franca contexts. She is founder of My English Voice – – which has been shortlisted in the 2017 ELTons for Innovation in Learner Resources.

Adichie. C.N. (2015). We Should All Be Feminists. New York: Anchor Books

Bates. L. (2014). Everyday Sexism. London: Simon & Schuster

Moran. C. (2012). How to be a Woman. London: Ebury Press

Sandberg S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf