The problem with conference speaker balance and what to do about it – by Gavin Dudeney

A few years ago I finished up a two-week training course in Rosario, Argentina and started a rather bizarre journey to Manila for a conference. Leaving Rosario by limo on a Friday morning, I travelled to Buenos Aires and then caught a flight to Madrid, one from Madrid to Helsinki, another from Helsinki to Hong Kong and a final one from Hong Kong to Manila. I then jumped in a limo, was whisked to a hotel where I showered and shaved, and went on to deliver a plenary at the conference. It was Sunday afternoon and I’d been travelling for forty-eight hours. But I was so excited – the exotic locations, the sights, the swish airport transfers. Somebody paid for all that… I was in demand… life was a whirlwind of adventure.

That same year I travelled to around 30 countries for training, consultancy and conference visits. I can’t remember much about any of them – they were all airports, hotels, conference centres, Ministry of Education offices, teacher training institutes… I do believe I had a day off in Hanoi once, and went on a trip to Halong Bay. Ah, the glamour!

I was addicted – I don’t mind admitting it now – and there are plenty of people like me in ELT.

When I was at home I wanted nothing more than to be back in the air again, flying off to an exotic location (near or far), meeting people, doing my thing. I never thought of the environment, never thought of what it might be doing to me. Never thought much, to be honest – it was just all so very exciting. Since then I’ve cut down a lot on my work travel, for a variety of reasons. Some of them I’ll share here, others are private.

Fast forward, then, to this weekend where I came across a Facebook post which started out being about job adverts for native speakers only, and morphed into a more general study of privilege and discrimination in the ELT world. We are all perhaps familiar with these discussions in the era of social media – from Silvana Richardson’s plenary to the work done on this website, we know how certain people are afforded greater opportunities than others.

But it was one particular comment which caught my eye:

I remember sharing this picture somewhere a few months ago [a picture is worth a thousand words] noting the Male – Female ratio as well as the ratio of NESTs to NNESTs…. I got the feeling that some people were less-than-happy about my sharing it…

Now, clearly, any sane person looking at this advertisement for a conference in Poland would acknowledge that the balance is all wrong – there is a bias towards male speakers, and male speakers of a particular tribe (mostly white, middle-class, ‘native’, British). How on earth did I allow myself to take part in such an event?

I found myself asking that, because the ‘some people’, and the somewhat annoying self-congratulatory nature of the smiley (“I rocked the boat there…. they must all be feeling a bit silly today, colluding in such an offensive conference”) seemed aimed more at the speakers than anyone else. I wondered why the person writing the comment hadn’t specified who the ‘some people’ were? Were we to draw the same conclusion that I had come to – that it was the ‘high-profile’ speakers that were being criticised? Well, perhaps not – maybe it wasn’t – but you can certainly see how that conclusion could be easily arrived at.

And then I had to cast my mind back to that event (it takes longer these days…). I was kindly sponsored by Cambridge for that one. I had done a session for them at a private training event in Prague and they thought it would go down well at this conference, and be suitable for the audience. They had invited me months before the conference, and I had dutifully booked and paid for trains, flights and hotels in order to be able to attend.

I had no idea who the other speakers were going to be (and, I suspect, neither did my sponsors) – I got an invitation, I like Poland, the conference was one I was interested in attending, I had a business meeting I needed to go to in Poland (which could be combined with the conference) and it all seemed like a good way of combining everything into a short, agreeable weekend of work away. And so I went.

A few weeks before I travelled, though, I saw the line-up and was a little put out by the balance. I have long argued for greater gender balance at events, and have been instrumental in organising a handful of events which have focussed on getting good local speakers rather than constantly parachuting ‘experts’ in from the UK. My company has an excellent gender balance in it, and over the years I have done my bit (as have so many others) – albeit quietly – to work against some of the major threads in this particular Facebook discussion. But – and this is important – if I pulled out, I would have been considerably out of pocket (not being able to reclaim the outlay for travel and accommodation) and I would have been considerably unpopular with the organisers and my sponsor. And, like everyone else, I have a living to make, and that living is somewhat dependent on my professionalism and dedication.

So why does this happen?

Well – if you’ve organised events you’ll know why it can happen – different people invite different people, large sponsors often insist on certain speakers (a new coursebook, teacher development publication or product to promote), conference organisers choose a topic where certain experts just seem to fit, are in demand… The local audience are also often their own worst enemy in asking for certain speakers, and so on. Conferences are complicated beasts, and with so many influences (and so much money) pulling on them, they sometimes (often?) go awry.

Looking back at that list of speakers, I can see why it happened – but let’s not assume that the speakers themselves colluded in the lack of balance, because it is extremely unlikely that most of them knew the line-up when they agreed to speak. Now, of course, you could ask why they didn’t find out once it had all been decided, and then work out if they thought  it was acceptable to speak, but that’s really not a logical and reasonable demand. People have to make money, they have to speak at events to promote things, they are under contractual agreements and more.

So where does change come from?

Well…. It needs to come from local organisers of events, who need to start discovering and nurturing local or regional talent. It also needs to come from sponsors, who might usefully do the same, and simply promote their wares in the exhibition rather than through imposing speakers on events. It also needs to come from local teachers and teacher associations – empowering, mentoring, nurturing talent. What could be more useful than someone from your own background and culture speaking to you at a conference? If you want useful stuff, stop asking for the ‘big names’, and start looking within – after all, you can always read their books. In the long run, this kind of approach can work.

Now, right up at the top of this post I said that I’ve cut out a lot of my travel, where feasible, and it’s been for a variety of reasons. One of them was that I got over the addiction to the whole process, and began to question whether what I was doing was good for me, good for my health, and even – yes – good for the people I was speaking to at events. I have my doubts about the utility of short events these days, I’m simply not convinced they serve their primary purpose. I think events are great for networking, for the communal and social aspects, but I’m no longer convinced that they really contribute to anything more than an ephemeral surge in ‘development’, and are then easily forgotten. They serve lots of other purposes, but perhaps, when all is said and done, a secondary school teacher in South Korea really doesn’t get anything long-lasting from a visit from me. I get the visit, the food, the lovely people, the sights and sounds. It’s not a good balance.

I came across this recently, and it lit a small light up in my fuddled brain:

Nothing has promised so much and has been so frustratingly wasteful as the thousands of workshops and conferences that led to no significant change in practice.

Fullan, M. (1991) The new meaning of educational change. Teachers College Press

It is precisely because of this feeling that I prefer ‘training’ to conference appearances. It seems to me that a whole day with a group of people stands much more of a chance of having an impact than a thirty-minute workshop. These days I crave one- and two-week courses, and do quite a few of them each year. They’re demanding, tiring, but it’s quality time with quality people and I think it works.

I have other reasons, though. I realised that all the travel wasn’t helping with the environment, and that stared to feel bad, too. But most of all it has really been out of a sense that the gene pool of conference speakers is too small, and not nearly diverse enough. Look at the line-ups for major conferences and you’ll see the same twenty names time after time – there simply has to be more to it than that.

I put all this together and it amounted to one simple thing for me – travel less.

Over the past four or so years I’ve made it a habit to say ‘no’ to many of the invitations which come my way, often with the (not unreal) excuse that I am already busy on those dates, or have too much work on. When doing this, I have also tried to recommend one or two names who might usefully fill the gap I am creating – and I’ve tried to do that bearing in mind some of the things I’ve already mentioned here. If all of us who get lots of invitations start to do the same, then it might go some way towards promoting greater balance. I’m not saying people have to or even should do this, merely that I think it’s one way of going about things. But it is part of a bigger picture which clearly needs a lot more work.

When all is said and done, my reasons are not entirely altruistic, but they can help. That’s the best I can do, I think. I’ve volunteered for ELT organisations for seventeen years and – along with many others who perhaps aren’t overly vocal on social media – I think I’ve done (and continue to do) my bit for a better ELT world. There are lots and lots of us – women, men, ‘native’ and ‘non-natives’. Although these issues are very much in the limelight currently, it would be wrong to assume that they went uncriticised in the era before blogging and social media. We just need to step up the offensive a little – do more, together.

I still go to the odd event each year, and will continue to do so, because a few seems like a decent balance, it helps me stay up-to-date with what’s going on, it keeps my professional profile healthy and – after all – it’s my profession, it’s where I work and what I do and, crucially, often where I get work from. I just think the pie could be cut into more, smaller pieces, and those pieces could usefully be distributed  more evenly and fairly across the ELT demographic.

Gavin Dudeney[15900]Gavin is Director of Technology for The Consultants-E, working in online training and consultancy in EdTech.  Former Honorary Secretary and Chair of ElCom at IATEFL, he now serves on the International House Trust Board and on the Educational Writers Group Committee of the Society of Authors. Gavin is author of The Internet & The Language Classroom (CUP 2000, 2007) and co-author of the award-winning publications How To Teach English with Technology (Pearson 2007) and Digital Literacies (Routledge 2013).  His latest book, Going Mobile, was published by DELTA Publishing in 2014.