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.

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

  1. katherinebilsborough says:

    Thank you Gavin for such an honest account of your situation. You also have a reputation of being a “Technical Fairy Godmother” at the conferences you attend (I just came up with that name, hope you like it) so that’s another good reason why you must continue attending some events. I’m reasonably new to conferences outside Spain but have noticed small shifts in the balance. What you say about the organisers of events makes perfect sense and if we all do our bit to spread the word, hopefully the small shifts will become bigger.

    • Gavin Dudeney says:

      Kath,
      Thanks for dropping by and for your comment. My technical bag of tricks is legend – I should have charged for it from the start, I’d have that yacht by now! I think the will to make that shift is there, but the logistics often get in the way. But – as noted on Facebook in a reply to my post there – things like the Fair List have made valuable inroads.
      Gavin

  2. meayrs says:

    A well balanced, thoughtful post, Gavin – thanks. We could add to this the (not always obvious) fact that conference organisers can invite the speakers they decide on in the balance they prefer, but those invited do not or cannot always accept. This can mean that in some cases out of your original (say) six speakers only three accept, and they might just be all something (male, N`S, white, whatever). This puts an additional strain on the organisers who now have to find three more, and not just any three but three who match the desired profile. And the odds are that you have little time to find these.

    My experience has been in publishing, and it’s easier to keep the balance there because you can stockpile articles and fill your issue from your article bank. Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t really do this with conference speakers.

    • yenedud says:

      Martin,
      Yes, I think that was part of my point – the variables are endless and sometimes they go wrong. To counteract those variables will require more concerted effort and organisation. But it can’t be impossible for each country to nurture talent for its own conferences, surely? And – obviously – people don’t all have to be invited the same day – so it is possible to build a speaker list slowly and carefully.
      Gavin

  3. eltnick says:

    ON NUDGING AND WINKING
    Being the one who wrote the original comment that Gavin refers to (see the picture above) I feel I have to set the record straight here. First of all I have to acknowledge that, to his credit, Gavin has presented a sensitive issue with admirable impartiality. And Gavin is right; there was a ‘wink’ there – only it was not meant towards the speakers or the organisers of the event. The reason I felt my comment was likely to trigger negative responses was that some time ago I had shared another picture (the one with the IATEFL Plenary Speakers for the 2016 Conference) and I had again looked at numbers: NESTs – 4, NNESTs – 1. This had clearly touched a nerve back then. I thought that some people might make the connection between the two posts and go ‘A-ha; so if he is saying that the ratio in this Conference is unacceptable, he is implying that IATEFL should also do something about the speakers they invite. What he is actually doing is criticising IATEFL – indirectly’. I am prepared to plead guilty to that. With the exception of 2017, the ratio of speakers at IATEFL conferences for the past 5 years has been consistently 4 : 1. I believe that IATEFL can and should do better. [NB: I would rather not discuss IATEFL here as Gavin’s post is more general. If I get any comments, I will respond of course. However, what I have said here is simply my opinion and I may well be wrong].
    Re the other thing now, I would like to be very clear: NOT ONCE did it cross my mind that the speakers were in any way responsible for the imbalance in the line-up – or that, having found out about it, they should withdraw. What a bizarre idea! I think this is the kind of sensitivity that one has to be very, very rich to be able to afford. If I had been invited to such an event, I would simply go without giving it a second thought. I would notice the imbalance of course and I might comment on it but I cannot see why I should be held accountable for something I wasn’t even aware of! And (as Gavin again rightly points out) it is not like the organisers were deliberately trying to exclude women or NNESTs; I am sure they were simply trying to get together as many good speakers / experts as possible. What is interesting of course (and this is the issue that we really need to address) is that when it comes to inviting the best, it is mostly white, male, NESTs who come to mind. (See also my posts here on ‘The Halo Effect’ and ‘The Magnifier’).

    • yenedud says:

      Nick,
      Thanks for dropping by. I still think that there was too much innuendo in your original comment for it to be helpful to the debate. I was not alone in interpreting it the way I did – and if we’re not all plain about this issue, then it simply becomes a playground game rather than something more serious and open to change.

      As a side note, IATEFL fairs extremely well in the Fair List across all its SIGs, f2f and online events each year – it’s not the right target, I’m afraid ]

      Gavin

      • eltnick says:

        Well Gavin, you may or may not be right about how helpful my comment was, but it seems that it is at least clear that I did not mean it the other way (i.e. that it is the responsibility of speakers to protest or withdraw from events they feel are somehow not fair or representative etc.). Re the side note, I am pleased to hear that IATEFL has been doing so well in the Fair List – and indeed compared to other Associations I believe it is one of the most sensitive on such issues. However, I still think there is room for improvement. For one thing, I believe the Fair List looks at the gender ratio among speakers, panel members etc. – here we are talking about something else (NESTs / NNESTs). The other thing of course is that you mention SIGs, f2f and online events… What about the yearly Conference? I am afraid it is hard to argue with numbers; as I said in my previous comment (with the exception of 2017), the ratio during the past 5 years or so has been consistently 4 : 1.

        • meayrs says:

          Scenario. In many contexts around the world event organisers chose ‘name’ speakers (most often but not always NS) because they will attract delegates to the event. In a sense it’s the same argument as that for drinking imported Scotch rather than locally distilled hooch, or wearing fashion house branded clothing instead of home spun. Exoticism or fame is a magnet for people who value it as superior to their own locally grown products and (for better or worse) equate it with quality. The choice for some event organisers may boil down to aiming for participants or parity: do we want a well-attended event that will cover costs, or one that is politically correct but has fewer attendees. it is surely understandable if these organisers follow the easy route? Just an idea.

          • eltnick says:

            MEYARS: Totally agree. In fact, there are a number of NNEST organisers who have told me exactly the same thing in very similar words. Every honest person will agree that this is how things are most of the time. The problem is that this is self-perpetuating. Noticing how things are is one thing; the big question is how to change the current state of affairs. Simply agreeing that we are all in favour of such a change does not help much…..

  4. Sue Leather says:

    Thanks for the post, Gavin. I have to say that I agree with you 100% , and also decided some time ago now-after I had racked up close to 60 countries-that if I left home it had to be for something that I thought really worthwhile and sustainable. In my case, I think running courses and projects with participants over a period of time has been the way forward. Nowadays, I only tend to choose projects which I know will result in me working with folks over time, rather than on a one-off basis. This way , I hope, means my work might lead to what Fullan calls ‘a significant change in practice.’ And yes, I travel less.

    Thanks also for bringing up the issue of gender balance, as well as NS and NNS balance. To me, the two things are very much linked. Without, I hope, hijacking your post, I’d like to address the issue of where change comes from in terms of gender balance.I agree with all of your points above, but I’d like to add that I think the ‘male speakers of a particular tribe’ that you speak of also have a responsibility to help address it. There are good examples from other fields. For example, a fellow called Owen Barder – a development economist at CGD- has started an excellent initiative that 100s of development professionals have signed up to, to refuse to be part of an all-male panel. (http://www.owen.org/pledge). It strikes me that this is something that that particular group, who seem to dominate many panels and conference line-ups, might think about doing. And this is also where it aligns well with the issue of NS vs NNS speakers and facilitators. I think we all, in our own areas of cultural dominance, have a responsibility to make sure, as you say, that the pie is distributed more fairly.

    • yenedud says:

      Sue,

      Glad you and I – and a few others these days – are on the same wavelength. It’s time for a change, and it will take some time, but I do believe we will get there. There is definitely a link to all these facets – gender, N/NEST, etc. – it’s historic, mostly – based on early visible work in terms of published books, articles, schools and ‘movements’ such as IH, etc. It was perhaps a question of ‘ownership’ in days gone by, but we’re way past that now.

      All this has certainly gone on for too long and – as you suggest – the ‘male speakers of a particular tribe’ should certainly look deep inside themselves these days. They may conclude – as some have elsewhere online – that they are happy where they are, but I think that’s increasingly untenable, and clearly not going to live long beyond them!

      Owen Barder’s project is one approach…

      Gavin

  5. Sue Leather says:

    I wanted to edit my post, but it seems that it’s impossible on this platform.
    To add:

    Re training- For some time I’ve insisted on training alongside local NNS trainers whenever possible. I think this helps with the issue of sustainability, andwith promoting NNS talent and skills.

    Re the issue of addiction- I do think that the older , white, mainly male folks do need to step back from time to time, and I’m pretty sure there are ways they can do that, if only they think about it. Hard to think though, if you’re addicted. Going cold turkey is hard, but it’s an essential part of the picture to my mind.

  6. James Scholl says:

    Thanks for the article, it conveys your predicament very clearly. Recently I attended 2 conferences in a developing country in Asia where both attendees and presenters who were female and whose first langauge was not English outnumbered those in the opposite categories. We can call this a basket case (a result of factors I have not explored) but the case does provide food for thought. Perhaps next year the conference organisers should ask all paper submitters to state their first langauge and their gender. Then, after separating the submissions into piles, they should randomly select 10 papers from each and from those papers, set out the conference program.

    The consequence of this procedure is to divide potential presenters into categories which we have defined as pertinent to achieving social justice. However, in doing so we risk excluding individuals who have diligently worked on papers and who have been rejected purely on the basis of an arbitrary category and the luck of random selection.

    To me, the proposition that conference presenters should be selected based on their gender or first langauge is understandable, but not justifiable. The reason why women are less represented in governments, company headquarters and conference lineups is a consequence of numerous factors that endure in social structures, cultures etc. The idea that handicapping the strongest conference presenters to give an advantage to underrepresented groups will help to solve this problem is unrealistic. At best, it will decrease the quality of presentations at conferences.

    Basically, conference proposals should be selected based their academic rigour, relevance to the conference theme and suitability to the expected attendees. Of course, it would be ideal to have a mixture of NNSs and NESTs, men and women, black and white, young and old, gay and straight, liberal and conservative etc. but this mix really should be incidental rather than orchestrated because the identity of speakers at a conference is objectively irrelevant.

    • Sue Leather says:

      James, hi.

      I think that the main issue with your argument is that most conferences are not made up of the strongest presenters, nor is the selection of presenters ever objective. Choice of speakers is very often not made based on academic rigour or theme, but on who the organisers have heard of on on the circuit. So the whole thing becomes a bit of a self-perpetuating system, where the mainly male white tribe get far too much exposure, and where NNSs and , often, women don’t get a fair crack. It’s very clear if you look at the current ELT field that there is a huge amount of under-used talent out there.

      if we become more aware of these inequities, and start to broaden our horizons, the quality of presentations at conferences may even rise.

      • yenedud says:

        Sue,

        I couldn’t agree more – conferences are rarely made up of the strongest presenters – there are many criteria, but I don’t believe that is often one of them 🙂

        Gavin

      • James Scholl says:

        Im glad that the three of us agree on the criteria that ought to be used to evaluate whether papers and presenters get accepted for conferences.

        I’m guessing that the self-perpetuating presenter syndrome described applies to the mainstream tesol conferences because the local ones that I go to don’t seem to suffer from the same affliction. However, presumably if the organisers of these had enough money to throw around they might also ask ‘tesol superstars’ to attend without stringently evaluating their credentials.

        I’m guessing it’s like TV discussion shows – the popular figures of the time get invited even though they are far less capable of providing informed commentary than well-read citizens on the street…

      • eltnick says:

        Hear – hear! This is THE most direct and honest comment I have come across in any thread for quite some time. I couldn’t agree more. Research tells us that (although we may like to think otherwise) i) we tend to gravitate towards people who are similar to us; ii) we are predisposed to promote our friends (unless they happen to be active in the same niche as we are); iii) we genuinely think our friends are better than they really are.
        In addition, there is also (iv) the mere exposure effect (we like and think highly of people or things we have seen again and again [‘who the organisers have heard of on the circuit’]) and (v) the halo effect (certain brands have a higher standing in the market compared to others and this fact influences us regardless of our beliefs: Male > Female; White > Non-White; NEST > NNEST). No wonder we always end up with the same people as plenary speakers.
        [NB: And most of them really ARE good – partly because they have been doing this for some time; you tend to grow into the role you find yourself in].

    • meayrs says:

      James: you say “The idea that handicapping the strongest conference presenters to give an advantage to underrepresented groups will help to solve this problem is unrealistic. At best, it will decrease the quality of presentations at conferences.”.

      The issue of perceived positive discrimination is a bit of a chestnut, and has been around the block a few times in and outside EFL. I was editor of IATEFL’s newsletter –Issues then Voices– for seven years between 2000 and 2007 and yes, we did respect a gender balance back then (please note, IATEFL-bashers).

      My problem, if problem is the word, is that I received about five times as many article submissions from men as women. We can theorise about why that should be the case, but it was the reality. There was never any problem with the NS/NNS balance and in fact I received slightly more submissions from NNS.

      In order to maintain the gender balance I had to commission or cajole women into submitting copy. My gender balance record stands (after the first couple of issues), but I sometimes look back and wonder about this. I think it was good for IATEFL to show equality of gender but it did not reflect the reality of the articles submitted. For men submitting, it meant that their chance of having an article published was slim – for women it was very high. Readers will have made their own decisions as to whether or not there was a difference in quality.

      I offer this without further comment. There is a wealth of speculation and interpretation attached to this, which I do not wish to go into here myself, but comments are welcome.

      • eltnick says:

        MEYARS 1: When you say ‘We did respect a gender balance’ I understand that the ratio was roughly 50% – 50%. This certainly looks fair, until one considers the fact that women far outnumber men in our field. As far as I know, the ratio is closer to 80% W to 20% M. If this is the case, should it not be reflected in the ratio of published articles, number of plenary speakers etc.? [Interestingly enough, the ‘Fair List’ people also think that 50-50 is fair. I have never understood why].

      • eltnick says:

        MEYARS 2: It seems that when you were the editor, submissions by NESTs and NNESTs were roughly equal. Was that also reflected in the number of published articles? (This is a genuine Q – I really do not have any figures).

      • eltnick says:

        MEYARS 3: Thank you for this fantastic bit of info: ‘My problem, if problem is the word, is that I received about five times as many article submissions from men as women.’ Amazing!! In a field where women outnumber men by something like 4 to 1, five times as many men as women think they have something worth sharing…. 🙂 Well, Evolutionary Psychology does have an answer (and a very convincing one too IMO). A few years back I wrote something on the underrepresentation of women in ELT. Those interested can Google ‘What Men are best at’ [ELTNick].

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