Point of View:
Some like to say: ‘what happens at conferences, stays at conferences’
Varinder Unlu explores why the ELT industry needs to take a long hard look at itself in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal
In recent months we have seen several high-profile cases of sexual harassment and violence: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, several members of parliament in the UK to name a few.
Resignations and arrests, denials and justifications, admissions and shame followed. It seems that no industry is unaffected. Abuse does not differentiate whether you’re a lawyer, doctor, actor, nurse, student or teacher. It’s so endemic and widespread, and the recent #metoo social media campaign showed just how many people have been affected by it.
But why are the victims sometimes treated like troublemakers or liars and attention-seekers? Why is the perpetrator believed over the victim? Is this the reason why so many victims of harassment, especially of the sexual kind, are reluctant to come forward in the first instance? In some cultures, victims could be put off by the shame and dishonour attached to it.
So what happens in the world of ELT? How do we deal with sexual misconduct, and do we have the mechanisms to report these incidents when they occur – whether that is between teaching colleagues, between teachers and their students or among students themselves?
In ELT, a largely unregulated industry, there are issues of duty of care towards people who are considered to be vulnerable. In the UK, language learners are classed as ‘vulnerable adults’ by the safeguarding authorities, and training is provided to staff in schools on how to spot harassment and abuse and what to do in these situations.
Anyone in the UK working with young people and vulnerable adults also has to have a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check, which gives a background history of the person’s suitability.
The situation is very different outside the UK. Many countries do not have this kind of training, awareness-raising or measures in place to protect the vulnerable.
Teachers and trainers are employed on their qualifications and experience alone and a lot of trust and respect is given to them. Anyone can get a teaching qualification as no checks are carried out on their background and suitability to work with vulnerable people when they apply to take a Celta or Trinity Cert Tesol course.
While the large majority of people who work in ELT are generally safe to employ, there are those who will take advantage of the situation. Very often the lack of language knowledge by the victim is used to the harasser’s benefit.
And it’s not just students who are affected. Teachers, especially those outside the home countries, are also victims of sexual harassment by colleagues and even students.
Outside the classroom at public events such as conferences, incidents that occur are spoken about in whispers between people and closed groups. People warn each other about certain men in the industry who have a reputation for inappropriate behaviour. Nothing is reported and, if it is, nothing is done.
There are those who have the ‘what happens at conferences, stay at conference’ view and some would rather just turn a blind eye as it’s too unpleasant and difficult to deal with.
We know who they are, yet we allow the behaviour to continue by making excuses and trying to justify why it happens. Comments like: ‘He’s always been a bit “over-friendly”’ or ‘It’s no big deal, you’re just blowing this out of proportion’ are common.
So why do we do this? Well, for one thing there is no one who will listen and take action within the industry. This is the exact same situation with bullying.
When anything is reported, the victim is branded as the troublemaker and things become worse instead of better for them.
They fear that no one will take them seriously and their future employment may be jeopardised. Most women will just rather not say anything, and taking legal action is very rare.
People don’t want to be associated with you, and having someone well known and respected in the industry call you a liar has a huge impact in terms of future job prospects. Perpetrators and their allies undermine a victim’s credibility and challenge their character.
So, it just becomes a vicious circle – harassment goes unreported and women (and some men) suffer as a result, while the perpetrators continue their abuse.
What do we do about it? How do we make our industry a safer place for everyone? How do we ensure that our classrooms, training rooms and conferences are safe places of teaching, learning and developing?
Much like bullying, sexual harassment occurs when the perpetrator has a position of power and control over the victim and knows they will get away with it.
More could be done by our teaching associations to support victims. People should feel that they are able to approach these organisations and not feel like they’re a nuisance.
Awareness needs to be raised in how to deal with these situations, and safeguarding training should be provided for all. Checks on teachers, trainers and public speakers must be a requirement.
Varinder Unlu has worked in ELT for 26 years and is currently academic manager at Glion Institute of Higher Education.