Speak Out, But Be Heard: Against Sexual Harassment in ELT

Speak Out, But Be Heard: Against Sexual Harassment in ELT

About thirty years ago I walked out of my fully funded MPhil/PhD position because I could no longer deal with the advances of one bed hopping, emotionally blackmailing lecturer. It was an abrupt decision, I was a talented student, and there was enough indignation on the part of some of the other (mainly female) lecturers to bring about a hearing in which the head of faculty peremptorily insisted I speak out, while making it clear that he was hoping (for all of our sakes) that I wouldn’t. I took the hint, kept silent, left the university and it was my loss.

It happens everywhere. Anyone following the Jimmy Saville scandal in the UK and the ensuing “Operation Yewtree” investigations will recognize the familiar pattern of harassment being perpetuated within seemingly respectable, yet repressively conservative institutions, where the injured party is clearly made to understand that their version of events is not welcome, or that their speaking out will injure other parties of higher worth or standing. This not only silences one party, it leads to an increasing sense of impunity on the side of the other. And so the situation escalates.

Conferences provide especially fruitful grounds for rule-breaking, of course. Like holidays, they encourage you to do something different, to take a risk. I once had a job organizing conferences and to my dying day I will never forget that look in the eyes of some of the delegates as they arrived for their annual fully funded bonanza. It was beyond scary.

Conferences are also about privilege, and the world of ELT has a handful of native speaking, male speakers who traipse from one to the next, talking to mainly female audiences. “Women are unwilling to speak,” they explain, in their best “it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it” tones. If it’s such a faff flying all over the place, staying in hotels, what, you may ask, do they get from it?

There’s this, of course, from (let’s call her) Ana:

“No one ever talks about situations where women have been getting ‘indecent’ proposals from (mostly) white, middle aged famous speakers who are invited to conferences or training especially in small countries (like mine) or to women who attend conferences alone …”

There follow reports of abandoned training courses, attempts to enter hotel bedrooms, etc. etc.

“Once I said to one of those men that I will have him exposed. He just laughed at me saying: ‘Well you might as well but the thing I,s I will be invited again even if anyone believes you. They need me not you’.”

Forget PARSNIPS in course books. The big taboos in ELT involve the industry itself. And the only way to deal with taboos is to stop ignoring their existence. Here’s what to do:


1. Work out a code of conduct for your organization. 

IATEFL has a very good one. TESOL has a less good one, but these are tucked away on the organizations’ respective websites.

2. Make the code of conduct visible and accessible to all.

Assuming we are in an industry that values its practitioners enough to take them seriously, a code of conduct is worth publicizing on the landing page (note to IATEFL: this would be more member-friendly than being greeted with a reminder of when my membership fee is due 😉 ☺).
But… the IATEFL and TESOL guidelines only apply to their respective staff and volunteers. So….

3. Make the code of conduct applicable to ALL members

and ALL taking part and/or present in the organization’s events.

4.Create a culture of trust, where victims of sexual harassment (and other types of harassment and bullying) can report their claims and know they will be listened to.
The IATEFL document recommends the staff member/volunteer first tries to resolve the situation themself and in the second instance reports it to someone at IATEFL HQ. Who can other IATEFL members report it to?

5.Appoint GOOD mediators/ombudspersons.

This person or these people need to be trusted and trustworthy in order to mediate with sensitivity between both parties and the organization. Mediation is usually better than early recourse to legal action because the binary nature of our legal systems tends to escalate the discourse rather than resolve the attitudes and habits the harassment is rooted in. (Quite apart from that the “winner” is often the party who can afford the better lawyers, and the “loser” the already weaker party).

6.Address BOTH parties

IATEFL correctly points out that “conduct can be harassment even if it was not intended to violate the individual’s dignity if it has that effect.” Norms change, they differ across age groups and cultures. Some people are genuinely unaware of the effects of their behavior, perhaps because no one has ever attempted to explain it to them. Such explaining does, of course, need to be done objectively, accusations will invariably lead to defensive reactions. Again, a good mediator may be able to handle this better than the individual involved.

7. Stay factual.

Victim statements* are okay, character assassination is not.

8. Follow each case up.

Hopefully not with acrimony. Good mediation should involve both parties moving beyond the original problem and learning how better to deal with such incidences next time.

A couple of notes to finish:

Every TA, every organization which organizes a conference or similar, needs a visible and accessible code of conduct and at least one person responsible for its implementation.

There are organizations attempting to address the problem (JALT in Japan, for instance). The biggest obstacle seems to be members’ own resistance. Expect this, it is a taboo subject and you are going to be stepping on people’s toes. On the other hand, if you meet too much resistance, it may be worth asking these gatekeepers why. ☺

It has been pointed out that it is not always men targeting women. Similarly, the procedures mentioned above are equally needed in non-sexual cases of bullying and oppression. Yes and yes.

With one exception (*) I have avoided using such binary concepts as “victim” and “perpetrator”. Sexual harassment festers within outdated hierarchies and my hope is that successful resolutions will lead to a realignment of power on all sides.

Ana has provided me with much more detail than I care to divulge. As this is not an isolated or rare issue, I have kept her contributions to a minimum and turned to the next person I could think of with some experience of sexual harassment. It was me.

Finally, huge thanks are due to Ana for confronting us with this issue. It takes a lot of courage to speak out. I didn’t, despite being offered the chance to, and it was probably a set-back to the people who were pushing for change all those years ago and an incentive to my randy, mad tutor to try his luck with further young talents. Looking back it was everyone’s loss.




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  • Elsiye

    Very important issue, Helen, and it is all coming together now with gender balance, native/non-native inequity and the vulnerable situation of women in the ELT world. Guidelines and efforts at mediation are key, even if instances of what Ana’s gone through take place in a fluid, transient situation when oftentimes people from two distant worlds meet for a short period of time. But sexual harrassment has been an issue in my experience as well: it involved Ethiopian female students and their teachers as well as underage girls in the Amazonian jungle where I taught. Obviously, here we are talking about instances of sexual harrassment between colleagues / participants at conferences, but the basic issue is that female students / female colleagues should be encouraged to talk about these very disturbing encounters. I even had a “forum theatre” type session on this in Ethiopia, and it was both revealing and offered a chance for healing.

    • Helen Waldron

      Thanks for your comment, Elsiye, It’s good to know you are so active in supporting people who have gone through what is often a misuse of power. It’s disturbing to think how many women have gone through this. I’m interested to know if your participants in the forum theatre in Ethiopia said they would have done anything differently in hindsight. Were there any recurring threads?