Melanie Butler on Glass Ceilings in ELT

Is there a glass ceiling for women in ELT? 

Let’s conduct a thought experiment.

Shut you eyes and walk into a staffroom, any staffroom you know well. Count the number of women’s faces.

Now do the thought experiment again. Go back into the staffroom and count the black faces.  If you are working anywhere in the private sector in Europe the answer to the second experiment is probably “none”.  If you are working in British ESOL, as migrant teaching is called  the answer is probably along the lines of, “one black and a couple of Asians.”  

If you are working in a US  language school you can probably count two or three black Americans and a sprinkling of teachers from other ethnic groups. And what if you are working in Kenya?

EFL is a global market and the situation for black teachers, (or women, or homosexuals) will vary depending on the country and the sector you are working in. Because it is a global market ,building a career generally means being globally mobile and that in itself can be a glass ceiling for working mothers  - or indeed anyone with kids. In most of the world, though, the highest level of discrimination is not against women teachers but against non-whites, irregardless of nationality or first language. 

A glass ceiling for white women there may be, but if you are black and you are British there is a solid steel front door.

Now that we are, I hope, all feeling a little less sorry for ourselves, let’s go back to the original questions: is there a class ceiling for women in EFL? 

The answer is: that depends on what country and in what sector you are working. And it always has done.
In the mid 1980s I gave a lecture in Barcelona on the role of women in ELT to a roomful of Masters students from both sides of the Atlantic. Women who wanted to get on, I argued, should go into publishing where there were plenty of high achieving women, and avoid academia. At the time there was not one female professor of any ELT related subject in the whole of the UK. At the end of the lecture the Europeans all clapped and the Americans all protested. In the US, twenty years ago, publishing was dominated by men but there were plenty of female professors, including the Emeritus professor at Harvard, the redoubtable, Australian-born, Wilga Rivers.

There are other examples of country to country variation in other sectors. In the UK the original language schools and language school chains were largely founded by men: John Haycraft of IH, Peter Fabian, of the London School of English, Paul Lindsay of St Giles and Frank Bell of, well, Bell. Pop across the Irish channel, however, and you find that many of the most famous schools were founded by women: Mary Towers of the Language Centre of Ireland, Hilary McIlwain of Keltic, Rosemary Quinn of CES, Celestine Rowlands, of Galway Cultural Institute.

So here we are in 2009, a quarter of a century after I gave that lecture in Barcelona, and what sectors, and what countries, offer the best opportunities for women now?

Let’s look at them one by one.

The situation in British Universities is much improved. The first women Professor, Gillian Brown, was awarded a chair at Cambridge and 1988 and the number of female professors has grown apace, not just in the UK but almost everywhere. We are not at parity in the ivory towers, but the difference between the sexes is no longer as ridiculous as twenty five years ago. In one Gazette piece I wrote on the subject at the time one famous (male) Professor of Applied Linguistics defended the fact that none of his peers were female: by pointing out that “women generally perform less well on video spatial awareness tasks.”

To which the Gazette responded:  “But women score better on verbal reasoning. What are they teaching in Applied Linguistics? Video Games?

Right now the university sector is a good place for women to be almost anywhere in the world. And not just for those with a PhD. The growing number of university department offering  Academic English courses for students,  seem women-friendly too not just in the UK but in Ireland, Australia and the States. Take just one New Zealander working in the UK right now : Olwyn Alexander, author of EAP Essentials, pioneer of EAP training and chair elect of British Association of Lecturer In English for Academic Purposes.

Migrant English courses, or ESOL if you’re British, are also doing better when it comes to women than was the case a quarter of a century ago. It’s not all good news in the UK, though. There may be more women in senior positions than there used to be but there are fewer Asians. One ESOL trainer told me the current profile of an up and coming Esol women is “ upper Middle class, privately educated and white.”

Almost everywhere in the English speaking world  the State Sector is good for women, especially working mothers. The teaching hours are shorter, the holidays longer and there is usually good child care provision. There is less need to be globally mobile – though you may need to move institutions in the same country if you want to get to the top. The pay is much better too, up to 200% better in the case of hourly paid teachers in London.

Except, of course, for those at the very top.The starting pay in the state sector is generally better, but you are much more likely to be earning six figures a year running a publishing house, a chain of language schools or an exam board.

So who runs those?

Well things have changed a little in publishing: there are more senior women than there used to be in the US houses, and slightly fewer in the UK ones. There is no figure anywhere that I can see as powerful as Paula Kahn, who fought her way up from ELT editor to head the whole of Longman publishing in the 1980s. Not only was she the most senior woman in the whole of British publishing, she was the only open Lesbian ( ELT may be racist, it may not be as women friendly as it could be but nobody could accuse this industry of homophobia).

There is a catch, though. Most of the women who dominated UK ELT publishing in the 80s, from Susan Holden at Macmillan to Yvonne de Henseler at OUP, had no children. Publishing is a long hours, long-haul travelling corporate game and, as my publishing director told me firmly when I worked at Longman in the early 90’s “children are a career decision”. And not, she implied, a very good one. Publishing is woman friendly but, like most big corporate businesses, child-friendly it is not.

Exam boards do better Liz Bang Jones at Anglia has two children, Monica Poultner, the head of teacher training qualifications at Cambridge Esol, has a tribe of boys, and  the extraordinarily entrepreneurial Caroline Browne who recently launched English Language Testing has a daughter..

There has long been a phalanx of formidable women at all the exam boards, especially at ETS in the US the home of Toefl from Marilyn Rymniak, who was formerly head of TOEFL to Gena Netten, who heads up the marketing.

The exam pendulum, though, may be swinging in favour of the men. Testing is booming but you increasingly need a specialist Masters to get into it and more and more men are taking that option but rather fewer women. Maybe men are more attracted to researching face validity in criterion-based reading tests. Or maybe they are just better at smelling out where the money is: the starting rate for a Masters qualified tester worldwide is about £40,000 (us$60,000) per year. 

I am reliably informed by  my friendly neghbourhood  (male) professor of testing, that there is currently only one such recent (male) graduate in Britain who hasn’t got a job.

The same is true of IT. Some of the leading pioneers in ELT distance learning were women: Nicky Hockley, Ruth Gates, the British Council’s Caroline Moore, and the redoubtable Flo-Jo.  Now  the field is increasingly filled with young nerdy men clutching Masters. Ah well, I hear you sigh, it is IT.   To which I can only reply with a questions ” What do you call a geek when he grows up?”


This leaves us with the language school chains. Obviously it is easier to build a career in a chain than it is in a stand alone school where you have to sit and wait for the DOS to die before you can get promotion. But are the chains women-friendly?

My completely subjective impression of this is that the situation for women is getting worse. In the private sector corridors of academic management women are on equal footing (count the Dosses) but in the corridor of power it’s the young men in grey suits who seem to predominate. 


Men do Sales. In many commercial chains the route to success increasingly comes through sales rather than teaching. And men get all the sales jobs. I asked a language school chain owner why in his business, most of the academic managers are women and the sales force is predominantly male. Yes” he said “the women run everything and the men sell everything. But that’s only because women don’t apply for the sales jobs..”

Women can do sales  - they do so very successfully in publishing, in language travel agencies and for examination boards. When it comes to global language school chains though, men take the all the sales jobs. 


The clue may lie in the word global. Global sales means global travelling. Again, this probably has a lot to do with children. In most societies women still take most of the responsibility for childcare, and it pretty hard to take care of the children when you are spending half your life on a plane.  Not all chains have this men at the top profile. 

At the Bell group, for example, the sales manager is male but the rest of the team are female. One of the three directors at Bell is a woman and two of the three UK school principals as is half the borad of Trustees. Ironic when you think that Bell was historically famous for having a management team almost entirely consisting of men: the famous “ Bell Boys”.

Bell do try very hard on the equal opportunities front and are  leading from the front when it comes to taking on prejudice against non-natives. But they are not paragons of virtue. When the Gazette wrote a piece saying Bell women teachers were living off compound in Saudi Arabia – insane in my opinion in a country where women cannot even drive cars or leave their house unaccompanied - Bell told us that the women were on exactly the same terms and conditions as the men. In a country that’s not equal opportunity, that’s house arrest.

Compare that to the British Council approach when they needed to recruit a senior woman for Saudi. According to Fiona Bartels-Ellis, the dynamic, black head of the Equal Opportunities and diversity unit, they spent hours agonising what to do. Then they advertised for a woman who was either married or would be prepared to get married before taking up the post!

A compromise, of course. But a compromise based on a real understanding of the problems of working as a woman in Saudi Arabia.

Again the Council are not perfect. But they have come along way from the days, 20 years ago, where a Council officer was suspended without pay when she got pregnant and another, senior, officer took them to court. Men are still slightly ahead at the London HQ   but overseas we are on the inside track: the two biggest markets are now headed by women: Ruth Gee in India and Joanna Burke in China.

The Council has long been aware of the need for global mobility.  To build up a career in the British Council teaching centres network, the teacher has to be prepared to move every two to four years. This is pretty difficult to do if you have children – and that is the case whether you are the mother or the father.
Almost uniquely the Council have done something about it. 

They have recently agreed that teachers with middle-management positions and above working outside Europe should be entitled to have schools fees paid for the local international schools.- an absolute necessity if you want to attract working mothers or even working fathers.  ( No, before you ask, I’m not sure why Europe is excluded either. If you move from Spain to Greece and then Greece to Poland, you’re going to end up with some linguistically confused kids). I don’t want to hold the Council up as saints: after all these are the kinds of terms and conditions normal in most other expatriate jobs. But it’s a start.

As far as I can see, kids (or working partners unable to move with your career) present the real glass ceiling in EFL. This is a global business and like any global business from oil company exectuives to aid workers, if you want to build a career, you are probably going to have to move. If you are tied to staying in Bournemouth or Barcelona, Brisbane or Boston you are simply going to limit your scope.

I’m not sure anymore that the problem is direct discrimination against women. It is discrimination against families that is the problem. In fact, increasingly it is not only women who find their careers are slowed by family ties. Very recently I was asked to headhunt a very senior (and very well paid) job at a British-based chain. One man I tracked down replied: “ This is a great job, a really great job and I’d love to do it. But my kids are teenagers, and my wife commutes to work full-time. Right at this point in my career I just couldn’t take on something like this.”

Sound familiar? 

Useful links related to this posting:
The She-in-ELT series
Sandy McManus on Melanie Butler
"I don't want to say it, Sir" by Vicky Loras

As editor and owner of the EL Gazette, Melanie Butler is a well-known She-in-ELT and I am honored to feature a piece written by her.  Melanie and her team of intrepid journalists carry out a good number of major investigative pieces and deal admirably with the usual libel threats which accompany perceptive and accurate stories of this type.

10 Responses to “Melanie Butler on Glass Ceilings in ELT”

  • Graham Stanley says:
    January 29, 2010

    Very interesting post with lots of food for thought. I think iot's inaccurate re. Learning Technologies though (what you refer to as IT) - the most dynamic and exciting new ideas in the use of LT in ELT seem to be coming from women at the moment, and they seem to be doing very well too.

    Just look at the ELT blogosphere and on Twitter, or take a look at who's presenting at the IATEFL conference (the IATEFL LT SIG day is dominated by women, and I haven't counted,but I think most ICT related talks there are by women too)

  • Alex Case says:
    January 29, 2010

    The knowledge and wisdom of Melanie Butler is amazing as ever. I did one piece for ELG and it left me exhausted for a couple of weeks, so how she can keep it up almost single handed for so long I really can't imagine.

  • TeflSecretagent says:
    January 29, 2010

    I enjoyed reading the article and I appreciate the perspective that you give. I think Graham has a very good point about the blogosphere, women dominate it now in terms of TEFL, atleast they do on my reading list.

    I actually completed your staff room test in the two language schools I work for...

    Language school 1 - Chain school
    Female DOS
    5 Student teachers, all female

    Language school 2 - small independant
    Female DOS
    3 teachers, 2 female.

    I know many female DOS in my local area and many more female language school owners. One suprising factor on a different topic is the decreasing number of Brits and Americans.

    Native teachers seem to be disappearing....

    January 30, 2010

    Hmm... Graham, that is true but very new - when I first got to the blogosphere and there were maybe 20 ELT bloggers... other than Christina Costa and a handful of others like Susana Canelo and,I can't remember her name she used to write ESL notebook(?), the blogosphere was dominated by men. This has changed radically in the last 18 months tho', you're right.

    And TmmflaSA, ta - though I found it interesting that your staff room test was just based on women, I think Melanie was also challenging us on the race card too!

    Yup, Alex, I am unbelievably honored to put this piece up on my blog, must say!


  • David V. says:
    January 30, 2010

    Come to Turkey where the exact opposite seems to be true.

  • Nicky says:
    January 30, 2010

    Thanks for a wide-ranging and thought provoking post, as always, Melanie. The topic of female plenary speakers has been explored on a number of blogs recently (Gavin Dudeney's, Jeremy Hamer's and this blog all spring to mind), but I think it is worth mentioning again here. Although some conference organisers now try to ensure a gender balance in invited speakers (IATEFL has noticeably been doing this for years), of the several conferences that I will be attending between next weekend and April, I yet again count a vast majority of male plenary speakers. And that's before we even consider race and so-called non-native speakers. I constantly find myself asking when looking at plenary speakers for a conference, 'Where are the women?' In 2010. Sigh.

  • David V. says:
    January 30, 2010

    Like I said, they're in Turkey.

  • Twintensity says:
    January 30, 2010

    Reminds me of Virginia Woolf yet again: the reason there were so few female writers in HER time, she felt, was because they were too busy bearing the children, and raising them, to be able to do anything else. (Room Of One's Own.) At least we now have more choice in the matter. Another interesting article in January 25, International Newsweek on Queen Victoria, the first working mom, (NINE kids) and not so darn thrilled about it either. Then again, Newsweek January 19, page 30. Meeting at the White House: about 20 people, only 3 women, and only 1 black man - but he's at the head of the table! It IS tougher to make it, either as a minority, a woman, or someone with kids - but at least we have more choices open to us than even 20 or 30 years ago, let alone 100.

  • Alex Case says:
    January 31, 2010

    Any other votes for Melanie to write a history of ELT? Just this one interview taught me more interesting things about that topic than a whole published book on the matter from OUP

  • Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto says:
    January 31, 2010

    I'll join Alex in voting for a history of ELT by Melanie. Fascinating post--I learned a lot! Thanks, Melanie.


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