Getting the (Conference Speaker) Balance Right

Getting the (Conference Speaker) Balance Right

There’s been a lot of talk about this recently – getting the balance right. The balance between men and women, between native and non-native speakers at ELT events and conferences. 

I’ve fairly recently joined the committee of an IATEFL SIG. I’m on the events team. So these kinds of ‘balance’ topics are more pertinent to me now than ever. 

This post is not really a ‘How to’: In fact, it’s me just kind of getting my thoughts in order, my pondering on the subject. There might be some tips, but this is definitely a request for more ideas!

So, let’s say we’re going to organise an ELT event. We put out a call for proposals. Various things could happen, and it’s how to deal with these that I want to talk about in this post. 

Scenario 1. We want someone to host a workshop. We review the submissions ‘blind’, i.e. without any information about the potential speaker who has submitted them. Proposal A fits the theme of our event, has a good balance in favour of practical ideas, includes interesting workshop activities, and sounds like it would be a good fit for our event. Proposal B is only loosely connected to the event’s theme, sounds too theoretical for a workshop, and the activities don’t sound like they would fit in the workshop time-slot. I’m guessing we want to accept Proposal A. Right?

And then we find out that the speaker who submitted Proposal A happens to be a white, male native speaker. Proposal B came, let’s just say, from someone who didn’t fit all of those labels. We are keen to avoid all-male or all-native-speaker presenters at our events. Should we accept Proposal B in order to fulfil this aim, and risk providing a less good workshop for our participants? I’m not really in favour of ‘positive discrimination’ in this case if it may endanger the quality of the event.

So what else could we do?

– Cancel the event. (This is probably the least favourable outcome for everyone involved.)

– Contact the person who submitted Proposal B and explain its weaknesses, asking for a re-submission. (This might take time we don’t have. And is it fair?)

– Find another way to include Proposal B, such as a poster presentation, so that the speaker can gain experience, get their voice heard, and hopefully submit a more fitting proposal next time. (If possible…)

– Accept it this time, and keep the person who submitted Proposal B in mind for a future event.

– Extend the deadline in the hope of receiving more proposals. (This might take time we don’t have.)

– In future, provide more specific guidelines for speaker proposals. (This doesn’t solve our immediate problem.)

– [What else could we do? Answers on a postcard, please!]


Scenario 2: We are looking for 6 speakers for a conference. We receive 5 proposals. All of them are from male native speakers. We could arrange the day to include 5 talks and a panel discussion with those speakers. We are keen to avoid all-male or all-native-speaker presenters at our event, but if we don’t accept all of the 5 proposals, we won’t be able to fill the day.

So what else could we do?

– Cancel the event. (This is probably the least favourable outcome for everyone involved.)

– Extend the deadline in the hope of receiving more proposals. (This might take time we don’t have.)

– Invite late proposals from other (female / non-native) speakers and re-evaluate the selection. (This poses a new set of questions:  Does this seem unfair? Who do you choose to invite a proposal from?)

– Invite other (female / non-native) speakers to take part in the panel discussion. (This poses a new set of questions: Who do you choose to invite? Should it then be an all-female panel – is that ‘positive discrimination’?)

– [What else could we do? Answers on a postcard, please!]


Scenario 3: We are co-organising an event with a sponsor, e.g. a publishing company. We agree that we will select 5 speakers from the proposals we receive, and they will send 5 speakers (maybe editors, authors, sales reps, etc.). We choose 3 female and 2 male speakers, of whom 3 are native and 2 are non-native speakers. We think we’ve got a pretty good balance. But the sponsoring company decides to send 5 male native speakers to hold talks at the event.

So what else could we do?

– Cancel the event. (This is probably the least favourable outcome for everyone involved.)

– Express our concerns and ask them to send alternative (female / non-native) speakers. (Not sure how well this would go down?)

– Change our speakers so they are all female non-native speakers. (How fair is this on the others we wanted to accept?)

– [What else could we do? Answers on a postcard, please!]

From all of this pondering, what have I / we learnt? OK, so I invented the scenarios and plucked the numbers out of thin air, just to make the point. But I think you get what I mean! But, well, sometimes we might just be in a bind and not be able to change he situation. We might end up with a line-up which seems to proliferate the male native-speaker presenter bias among conference speakers /workshop hosts that we want to discourage. People will complain – but maybe they don’t understand the difficult situation we are in. Still, at the very least, we can change how we approach our event organisation in the future. And if we’re planning an event in good time, which most of the time I’d guess we are, we might (should) be able to make that extra effort to move towards a better gender and non-/native speaker balance.

It seems to me, though, that some of the roots of the problem do not lie within the powers of events organisers. For example in Scenario 2 – why do we have so few proposals? Why are none of them from non-native speakers/ women? Perhaps the call for proposals was poorly advertised, not targeted at a wide range of potential speakers? That we could fix. But if lots of people (including women and non-native speakers) saw the call, then why did they not submit a proposal? I’m not the first one to say this, and I surely won’t be the last, but I think there must be reasons why these groups sem to put themselves forward for talks less often than others. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, maybe time or money concerns, or maybe extra-professional issues. Whatever it is, probably one of the most effective ways to avoid scenarios like the ones I invented here would be to somehow help these potential speakers  see themselves as potential speakers. But the ‘How to’ on that topic will have to be another post!

5 thoughts on “Getting the (Conference Speaker) Balance Right

  1. Hi Clare

    From Twitter to here to expand on your post and my thoughts! In reply to your final paragraph & reasons why some teachers don’t make a conference talk proposal, I tweeted that some teachers (male, female, ns, nns) may simply not be interested, lack time, money, ideas, confidence. Indeed, it could be a combination of any these factors and as you say at the end, some people may not see themselves as a potential conference speaker. This links into what I’ve been thinking.

    I think there’s some kind of pressure for speakers to talk about something new & unheard of and so teachers think ‘Well, I haven’t got anything new to say. This wouldn’t be of interest to anybody. It’s old news. Everybody knows this already. It’s too basic/obvious.’ So there’s that and then let’s say you do take the plunge of getting together a proposal there’s also the prospect of standing up in front of an audience (possibly with more well-known ELT speakers in it) to do your talk. For first-time speakers that can be very daunting and off-putting. Even if we teachers kind of do this everyday when we teach, to some extent, I don’t think there are many people who can say they enjoy public speaking. Which is why proposal tips & offers to help such speakers once chosen would be really good. Iatefl do this, don’t they, by partnering up an experienced speaker with a first-timer? Having said, that, I think I find it easier to talk to an unknown audience than deliver an INSET to my colleagues but that’s for another time!

    Pre-twitter I didn’t know about the majority of conferences that take place so I think there’s also the issue of getting the word out. I really don’t think that many teachers outside the Twitter/FB bubble know about the range of events, webinars and conferences that happen.

    Personally, I look at the Call for Papers to see the theme & strands on offer and decide if it’s really what I am interested in. After all, if you’re going to fork out for travel, hotel etc (or your institution, if you’re lucky enough to be supported by them) and give up a weekend or work/classes to attend, then I want to make sure it’s really worth my while. A 1 or 2 night stay adds up, and you haven’t even factored in the membership &/or conference ticket. So that brings us back to the time & money factor.

    Would be interested to know what you think!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Yes, IATEFL have a speaker-mentor scheme, which I also think is a great idea. I’ve seen more and more calls for papers which mention the availability of support like that, so it seems some things are moving in the right direction! And maybe adding the option for people to run their idea past someone before they submit a full proposal could help with the lack of ideas or confidence factors. Factors like lacking time and money are harder to work against, I guess. If I win the lottery, I’ll let you know!!
      Regarding advertising: This is something I’ve thought about, too. How to get the call for papers out there, beyond social media? It’s a tough one!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂


  2. This is a really intriguing post as it’s not often you see things from the point of view of the organiser.

    Personally, I’d love to speak at conferences and share ideas. However, I feel like I’m not there yet in my career. I guess part of this could come from the traditional line ups you see. I could be wrong but if you don’t see people who represent you speaking, you might not want to step up and do that until you feel like you tick the box (age, PhD, experience and so on).

    Another reason could be timing. I see a lot of events happening during the week, when I’m at work. If you are working freelance or have an understanding boss, this might not be a problem, but in my case, I wouldn’t get given time off to attend or speak at anything during the week (yes, I may need a new job if this is just me 😂)

    It’s a real conundrum and not an easy one to solve. Good luck ☺️


    1. Thank you for this Nicola! It’s interesting to hear why people don’t (yet) put themselves forawrd to speak at conferences. I’d love to hear any ideas you think could help people like yourself feel more ‘ready’.
      Also, I do think your employer should allow you a certain amount of time to invest in further training and professional development, so I’d say it’s definitely worth asking your boss about that!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I agree with you on needing time to invest in training. Maybe things will improve in the future!

        On how to help people feel more ready, it’s a tough one. Like, really tough. I suppose it’s the I’m-not-good-enough factor which is a highly personal thing. But I suppose as more and more brave people with different backgrounds, ages and qualifications step up to the stage, that will help balance out the stereotype of only being able to speak once you’ve done X, Y or Z.

        Liked by 1 person

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