Talking about gender equality at the Future of ELT conference, Regent’s University London

On Saturday June 17th, Trinity College and Regent’s University held the second teachers’ conference on ‘The Future of English Language Teaching’. Together with Melody Philip and Varinder Unlu, I spoke on the panel ‘Women in ELT: How can we achieve gender equality?’, chaired by Jackie Kassteen. This blog is a summary of my contribution to the session. I took the student experience as my focus, looking at how students are taught and the materials used.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity now stands at 60%. At the current rate of progress, it’s estimated that it will be 81 years before women can expect equality in the workforce, internationally.  In the light of these stats, what can we do as teachers, writers or publishers to help promote a more gender-equal future for our students? In my talk I suggested three areas to look at.


Me talking at the Future of ELT conference panel discussion on Women in ELT (Photo credit Melody Philip)


1 Being critical of materials

In a show of hands, about half the audience said they currently considered gender representation as a criterion when selecting classroom materials. When asked how many had come across materials they found sexist, about half said they had. The examples of sexism they volunteered to share included the cliché of women rather than men performing domestic duties.

This comes as no great surprise. I have talked at length about gender representation and materials development in a previous blog for IATEFL MaWSIG, outlining the subtle but recurrent imbalances we see in course books, and the problematic lack of women depicted in aspirational roles. Essentially: students can’t be what they can’t see. One way to tackle this is to incorporate role-models in the classroom materials we put under students’ noses.

As well as identifying poor gender representation in course books, and avoiding or adapting that material, I suggest that when we find good resources which empower and inspire, we share them! (The Women in ELT facebook group is a forum sometimes used for this, for example.)

2 Being self-critical – monitoring the behaviours we model and the language we use

We’re all sexist. I know I am. We all have unconscious bias. We have it because we are the products of the society we live in, which is unequal in some fairly fundamental ways.

How does this affect the classroom?

There’s a lot of research showing that teachers interact more with boys, call on them more frequently and ask them more questions. Boys are also more likely to shout out answers, and less likely to be reprimanded for doing so. We can be aware of these biases, and consciously try to rectify them.

We can also be mindful of the language we use. Lots of people will say this is unimportant but I don’t agree – language shapes the way we see the world, and in defining our reality we change the way we experience it. We can find and teach neutral alternatives to gendered language (eg firefighter, police officer, actor, head teacher, chair, spokesperson etc)

3 Encouraging learners – male and female – to be critical too

We know that visual literacy is a crucial 21st century skill. Kids are bombarded by images on TV and the internet, as well as in books, and they need to know how to read their messages. We can encourage learners to be critical of the visuals they consume by routinely asking questions: What do you think about this picture? Is it realistic? Why or why not? Is your family like this? What message does this picture tell us? What’s missing?

We can also teach learners to be aware of gender stereotyping (and other types of stereotyping) and call it out when they spot it. Perhaps the most effective way to get students talking about this is to surprise them by highlighting their own unconscious biases. Check out this recent post by Adi Rajan on an activity which uses images to explore stereotypes, for example. And see this fantastic video by Inspire the Future about the surprise a primary class had after being asked to draw a firefighter, a fighter pilot and a surgeon.

We can encourage learners to think about gendered assumptions about behaviours and expectations and not to be pigeonholed.

Attitude to risk is also part of this conversation. It’s important to create learning environments in which girls become accustomed to taking risks. In this TED talk, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code asks us to ‘Teach girls bravery, not perfection’. She argues that we’re raising girls to be perfect, and we’re raising boys to be brave. Girls are taught to avoid risk and failure, which holds them back. This ‘bravery deficit’ accounts for female under-representation in many parts of the public sphere, she says. Women have been socialised to aspire to perfection and are overly cautious as a result.

Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, makes a similar argument in her influential book Lean In. Her main point is to say that as well as facing institutional obstacles, women face internal ones, which prevent them from putting themselves forward for opportunities and make them more likely to downplay their achievements and abilities. She has a refrain which she comes back to over and again, which I think is a good note to end on:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

This is something we need to ask ourselves about our own careers, and can also get students thinking about, too.

Over to you

I’d love to hear your ideas about gender representation in materials and what we can do to challenge stereotypes. Please do share your thoughts in the comments.


Chair Jackie Kassteen, with speakers Melody Philip, Varinder Unlu and me, Emily Hird (Photo credit Caroline Robinson)


For more about the ‘Women in ELT’ panel session, read Melody Philip’s blog here.

You can read a more recent post of mine about gender and the representation of boys, specifically, here.


9 thoughts on “Talking about gender equality at the Future of ELT conference, Regent’s University London

  1. Thanks for this post, Emily. One of my favorite ways of teaching and enforcing gender-awareness with language is gender-neutral “they”. It usually baffles my students at first, but I’ll highlight my own unconscious use of it. Then we have fun calling out anybody who uses he as a gender-neutral [sic] pronoun SEXIST! They get it, get into it and by the end of the course they’ve usually got it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Kyle – thanks for commenting! I like this idea about gender neutral ‘they’ a lot (though I know I used to get told off about this on essays at university … hopefully things have moved on a bit since then, as we all use it all the time because there’s no clear alternative!). If you haven’t already seen it, you might like this article by Jemma Prior for the British Council about teaching gender neutral language (with a focus on adult learners):
      I also think higher level learners might be very interested to discuss the policing of language on gender terms we’re starting to see at universities:
      and also
      It’s pretty contentious! But raising awareness that these things are even up for discussion is worthwhile, I think.


  2. Great blog as ever Emily. One thing I wanted to say on the day but there wasn’t an opportunity is that there is still a perception for publishers that girls are happy to read stories with boys as the main character but boys are reluctant to read stories with girls as the main character. This was given to me as a reason for gender imbalance in a reading scheme series I queried when editing it about 15 years ago, but recently quoted again by Lauren Child To be fair, there was also a bit of gender bias against boys in the series I’m talking about as it was for reluctant readers, and they’d made the assumption that most of these would be boys. But I also think this general assumption needs challenging/looking at.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Couldn’t agree more! I was quite annoyed about the Lauren Child statement when I first read it. Surely we should be making it normal for boys and girls to read stories about both boys and girls. I was also frustrated with the hugely publicised Rebel Stories for Girls publication for the same reason (because although it’s great that inspiring female role-models are becoming more visible, I really think that BOYS need to be seeing women in these empowered roles too. Taken to its logical conclusion – what happens if boys only read stories about empowered men?!)
      I suppose it reflects the segregating that now goes on with toys (girls’ aisle / boys’ aisle) and clothes, but that’s no excuse.

      I’m really sorry you were cut off – I realised at the time that people had more comments and there was plenty more to discuss but I think we were well into our lunch hour by then!


  3. Hi Emily

    I enjoyed this post & will follow up with the videos and links you posted. Will share with publisher colleagues, too!

    Do you know if any of the other speakers at this event are planning to blog about their contributions? I’d love to have attended but I was at an equally stimulating PronSIG event that day…



  4. Thanks Laura!
    Would have been an interesting one for publishers to attend because there was a bit of interesting discussion in the Q+A about the publishers’ responsibilities in this area.
    I believe all the sessions were videoed – I’ll tweet you the link if/when that becomes available. Re: blogs – I’ve just edited post to add a link to the blog by Melody Philip about her slot for the Women in ELT panel on mentor-coaching. I haven’t seen any others yet, but Twitter users will probably tag them with #FutureELT17, so I’ll be keeping an eye on that.
    A definite highlight for me was seeing Gail Ellis give a plenary about self-assessment for young learners. I’d definitely recommend that if you get a chance to see slides or video. Very useful mix of research and practical ideas.


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