Some of the ideas in this post might piss some people off. If you think of me as a fuzzy kind of person who uses the word “magical” a lot, you might want to skip this one.
Ok so we’ve established that there are two basic models of esl/elt teacher, and that each type seems to have its natural habitat. Let’s move on to the concern expressed by Russell Mayne and the curators of The Fair List: that women are under-represented in certain areas, most notably management and keynote speaking.
I’m going to take management out of the equation right off. Number one, I don’t feel qualified to address it because I have never encountered sexism from management in esl/elt. Number two, as I have definitely experienced sexism in other work environments (hello retail!), my feeling is that any situations where sexism appears in language schools is a manifestation of a huge systemic battle that we’ve been fighting for the past 100 years. That’s too big for me right now.
Let’s talk about keynote speakers, but first, let’s take a deep breath. This conversation reminds me a little of some research I did when I was studying gender relations at OISE. Apparently, at the time, a very small percentage (Let’s say 2% to make the math easy.) of senior partners in topflight law firms were women. Therefore, we assume that 98% of senior partners were men. This is definitely an imbalance, but the problem comes when people switch the equation around. It does not mean that 98% of men were senior partners in law firms. In other words, this is a really small group of already highly selected people that we are dealing with. It somehow connects in my mind with the story of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who caused a huge “Can’t have it all” uproar when she left her job at the US State Department to… return to her job as president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. (not exactly secretary of the PTA)
I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes to feminism,as with most things, one has to pick one’s battles. I’m definitely not saying “let’s all get back into the kitchen until every Afghani girl can go to school,” but I do think that fighting over certain high-profile examples of gender balance or imbalance distracts us from the real world questions most people face when we talk about gender.
So let’s look at the example of keynote speakers. Why are so many of them men? It seems that men are more likely to write successful theoretical sla texts. It is also possible that the stereotypical male model esl teacher, who is more of a risk taker and a self promoter, and also more physically mobile, may be better suited to the role of keynote speaker. Perhaps women are just not interested in being keynote speakers.
Is this a problem? Should they want to be keynote speakers? Are they missing out on something valuable by removing themselves from the competition? What do keynote speakers gain besides the intrinsic pleasure of speaking itself?
There’s money — the speaking fees themselves and the increased book royalties from raising their profiles. However, if we examine the gender balance in the more practical side of esl writing, women are much more widely represented. And if we’re looking at purely monetary considerations, it’s the latter group that sells in the greatest volume. We don’t see many mass orders for the theoretical texts, whereas every esl school in the tdsb has tubs full of the works of the magnificent Betty Azar.
There’s the raising of one’s profile, but again I think we need a little perspective. Let’s do a little side-by-side comparison. The inestimable Kim Kardashian is quite successful in the world of reality television. I do not follow reality television, but I am aware of her existence. Think of a person who is quite successful as a keynote speaker (I will not cite any examples. There was that one fluke time when 30 people read my blogpost, so I do not want to inadvertently step on anyone’s toes.). Do you have friends outside of ESL/ ELT? Yes? Good –healthy sign. Have they heard of this famous keynote speaker? Yes? Is it only because you have a huge poster of him on your bedroom wall? No? You’re lying. The only esl-related person anyone outside the industry has ever heard of is Chomsky and that’s because he a) revolutionized the whole idea of language itself but more importantly b) talks about things that have nothing to do with language and most importantly c) is a good person to cite if you want to appear smart and edgy.
So what we have is a certain group of people who have a chance to perform an activity that does earn them money, but not a huge amount, not an amount that would catapult them into a higher tax bracket than your average language teacher. They have a chance to earn prestige, but the prestige only extends to the set of people who go to conferences and pay attention to the identity of the keynote speaker. In other words, they enjoy prestige among the group of people who agree that elt keynote speaking is a prestigious activity. This group does not extend beyond the limits of the elt community; in fact, there is a large sector of the elt community that is almost completely oblivious to conference proceedings. In short, this group, which tends to contain more men than women, enjoys a certain degree of privilege, but nothing that in itself elevates its members in a life-changing way. Is membership in it something we really need to be fighting for?