An argument for equal voices in ELT

Back in 2015, April Reign kicked up a storm in Hollywood. Pointing out a lack of diversity in the industry, her tweet and hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite, they asked to touch my hair”, went viral.

As she explains in her Vanity Fair editorial, her position is that Hollywood needs to give talented newcomers of diverse backgrounds an opportunity to succeed in an industry dominated by old school networks. She further explains that she’s not interested in fulfilling diversity “quotas”.

Diversity – or its absence – remains a problem in many industries. Even in the forward-thinking Silicon Valley, companies are failing to give opportunities to black and hispanic talent.

But it’s not all bad news. In June 2018, Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez appointed 11 female MPs to his cabinet – and this was history in the making. For the first time ever women outnumber men in positions of power in the ruling party; there was something of a media frenzy.

What these stories tell us is that a shift in our social consciousness is taking place – and whether we’re in Hollywood, politics, tech or even ELT, we’re talking about equality more, and more people want to do something about it.

What are the benefits of diversity?

Are we just walking through a politically correct agenda – or is there really something behind having a diverse workforce and equal opportunities?

Intuitively, it’s obvious that homogenous groups naturally tend to act in their own self-interest. Boxed in by one cultural background or gender bias and without the experience and knowledge of those outside groups, it’s very hard for a collective to think about the needs of people who are different. In some cases this can lead to (intentional or unintentional) discrimination. The Tampon Tax story for example, highlights how a male-dominated political body fails to act in the best interests of women.

In other cases, we see that a lack of diversity leads to misunderstanding and missed opportunities. For example, a homogenous company board will not understand and serve the needs of a diverse market as well as a more diverse board would.

Science seems to back these instincts. A report by Mckinsey shows that companies that do best in terms of racial and ethnic diversity are “35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

And those doing best when it comes to gender diversity are similarly “15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

When the evidence backs up intuition, there’s a good reason to act.

So what’s happening in ELT?

InnovateELT 2018
A mixed crowd at the annual InnovateELT conference in Barcelona

If you work in ELT, you might have noticed a visible gender imbalance within the industry. From CELTA participants to ELT conference attendees, women significantly outnumber men.

Nicola Prentis, founder of Gender Equality in ELT and speaker at this year’s InnovateELT, sets the ratio at 60:40 female:male.

Clearly, inequality isn’t about numerical superiority; it’s about opportunities and inclusion. While women may be in the majority among ELT practitioners, the further up you go, the fewer women you find.

As a result, the voices that shape debate and discourse, by and large, are those of men. This is especially true when it comes to plenary speakers and the so-called ‘gurus’ of ELT.

Similar patterns appear when you consider the native vs. non-native (L1/L2) speaker dichotomy.  For the vast majority of practising English language teachers around the world, English is a second language.

Naturally, at ELT conferences, non-native English teachers can make up a sizeable chunk of the audience. Nevertheless, those on stage tend to come from English-speaking countries.

But voices have emerged, championing both causes.

InnovateELT plenary speaker Marek Kiczkowiak is becoming an authority on this topic. He founded TEFL Equity Advocates, which has a mission to stand “against ‘native speaker’ bias in ELT and for equal employment opportunities for ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers”.

It’s also well worth watching Silvana Richardson’s plenary at the 2016 IATEFL annual conference. Titled “The ‘native factor’, the haves and the have-nots”, she examines the state of equality and social justice for ‘non-native speaker teachers’.

Other organisations, such as Teachers as Workers, TEFL Guild and Barcelona cooperative SLB, offer support and advice to ELT practitioners, strive to improve working conditions and fight discrimination.

There have also been calls by some, including Adrian Holliday, to abandon the ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ labels all together; an argument that has been challenged by Geoff Jordan, another InnovateELT speaker.

What’s Equal Voices in ELT?

Building on the progress made by The Fair List, EVE addresses both gender and L1/L2 disparity at conferences, as well in the broader context of ELT. They’ve taken their campaign worldwide with an approach that is both positive and practical.

Central to their idea is the EVE calendar, which lists international ELT events that are in line with the project’s criteria. Organisers are awarded a variety of badges, depending on how well they meet the different criteria. For example, a purple badge is given for gender parity, a green badge for L1/L2 parity, and, if balance is achieved for both aspects, the organiser receives a platinum badge.

The movement has a growing list of supporters, Friends of Eve. Key to its success is its promotion of quality and equality. However, it’s not here to name and shame organisations that don’t meet the criteria, rather reward those who are making an effort to address these issues.

EVE is a response to inequality, specifically at ELT conferences and events. However, discrimination based on gender and language is an issue that pervades other areas of the industry.

With all the benefits that diversity brings and with so much scope for improvement in our industry, it’s important that ELT shakes off its stuffy old traditions and becomes a leader in this space.

Having a more diverse group of leaders in publishing, teaching, management and ed-tech will only bring greater innovation, a better learner experience and more attractive job prospects for ambitious young professionals. Thanks to EVE, TEFL Equity Advocates and other forward-thinking organisations around the world, the good news is that there is a lot of scope for change – and the faster we get there, the better.  

Make your voice heard at InnovateELT 2019

Are you ready to talk about equality in ELT? InnovateELT 2019 is the ideal forum to listen to and share diverse views. Join the debate on May 17th and 18th in Barcelona and be part of the change you want to see happen.

This year is the conference’s 5th anniversary – an excellent moment to reflect on the past, see what has changed, and look forward to the future.

Talk Highlights:

  • Present tense: women as leaders in 21st century ELT, a talk by Melody Philip
  • How to Tackle Native Speakerism by Teaching English as a Lingua Franca, a talk by Marek Kiczkowiak
  • Real Talk: #MeToo & Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the ESL Classroom, a talk by Jade Cintron

We’re hoping and working for a more equal, more diverse future in our industry. Will you be there with us?

Find out more about the InnovateELT 2019 conference or get your tickets now.