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Have you ever seen a girl do a wheelie?  If you do, please let me know… 🙂 Although this question may seem unrelated to this article, this is far from being the case.  The connection first struck me while I was looking at the list of speakers at the TESOL 2009 Convention – it occurred to me that in a female-dominated field, the male speakers were rather numerous – in fact the ratio was almost 50 – 50%.  And when it came to the Plenary Speakers, the ratio was 3:2 – 3 men to 2 women that is!!  So here is the answer to the original question:  Men are far better than women at showing off!  And chances are, they will always be! 🙂 Here is Professor Alice Roberts before we return to ELT:

What do the figures show?  As everyone knows, in the field of ELT men [M] are an endangered species and TESOL Greece membership reflects this.  Apparently 85% of our members are women [W] while only 15% are M.  When it comes to speakers however, things are not like that at all; over the past few years the speaker ratio at TESOL Greece Conventions was roughly 50 – 50% while for the plenary speakers the figures were 52% M to 48% W.  Information I got from TESOL Macedonia – Thrace paints a slightly different picture: during the past 15 years there have been 35 W Plenary Speakers compared to 69 M!  Whatever the case, it is obvious that there is a huge discrepancy between the ratio of members and speakers.  And the question is – ‘Why’?

Why does this happen? [1]:  Ask anyone who has been inculcated with the central belief of the Standard Social Sciences Model (Crawford & Krebs 2008) that any observable difference between M and W is attributable to the environment, and they will come up with an impressive array of plausible-sounding answers: W are held back by the demands of their second ‘career’ at home / there is a ‘glass ceiling’ even in ELT / W are socialised to be less ambitious than M etc. No doubt there is an element of truth in all of these – particularly the first one.  However I believe this is only a small part of the answer (for a brilliant and most informative book on the subject see Browne 2002).

Why does this happen? [2]:  So let us now turn to the real reason: M are programmed by evolution to show off.  In the vast majority of higher life forms (e.g. reptiles, birds and mammals), the female is the investing sex when it comes to reproduction and W are no exception.  Because of this, it is the males who display (e.g. peacocks, bower birds etc.) and the females who choose (Forsyth 2001).  So, the males need to stand out.  What is more, in very many species the few successful males mate with most of the females (ibid.) while the fate of the others is genetic oblivion – hence the need to stand out becomes even more imperative!

Men Excel 6

The animal world:  Do males display in the animal world?  Of course they do!  And I am not just talking about mating displays aimed directly at females like the spectacular ones by some birds of paradise; male animals display in more subtle ways too.  Male chimpanzees hunt monkeys, but they tend to do so even more when fertile females are present! (Miller 2001) Zahavi (1997) has discovered that among Arabian babblers (a species of bird) males actually fight each other for the right to do guard duty for the community!  This task is highly ‘altruistic’ since it means both that they cannot feed and that they are more at risk from predators – but of course it also results in higher status and therefore more ‘girls’!  M too are far more likely to perform ‘heroic deeds’ for others and not because they are great altruists! (Winston 2002)

Men, Women and ELT [1]:  Let us go back to the ‘Why?’ in our initial ‘mini-research’.  Is it that M in ELT and better than W?  Of course not * – if anything it is the other way round! (Pinker 2002) But the motivation is different.  When a W decides to give a talk, it may be because she thinks it will promote her career, or because she is excited about something and wants to share her ideas and enthusiasm with other colleagues.  With M it is all this plus something much more important; every female in the audience is a potential mate!  The M may be unaware of this factor, but it is there all the same.  And this is reflected in their delivery too.  Compare the straightforward, sensible style of someone like, say, Olha Madylus with the brilliant flamboyance of someone like Cliff Parry!

Men Excel 8

Men, Women and ELT [2]:  Nor is this male desire to stand out manifest only in the relative number of speakers.  Men constantly seek positions of high status in all fields (Vugt & Ahuja 2010) and ELT is no exception**:  Consider this:  out of 41 State School Advisors 10 are M!  And what about the private sector?  15 out of the 41 local PALSO Associations are headed by M!  The ratios are 25% and 36% respectively.  You want further proof?  Go to your bookcase.  Take out any Teacher’s Handbook you want.  Now look at the ‘Other Titles’ list and count the names of the authors.  I did this for two books published in 2009.  Here are the results: OUP: 24 M vs 20 W – CUP: 34 M vs 12 W.  I rest my case…

Other examples:  Everyday instances of M showing off abound.  Take language for instance:  Who tells the most jokes in groups? – M do!  Who were the greater orators in the past – and who are the greatest rappers of today? – M naturally!  (Miller 2001).  It is no accident that verbal ability is the feature most strongly predictive of leadership potential (Vugt & Ahuja 2010).  And what do M talk about? – themselves of course!  (65% of the time while for W the figure is 42% – Dunbar 2004).  Interestingly, M also tend to talk about more intellectual topics – when W are present! (ibid. – any resemblance to chimps is purely coincidental! 🙂 )

Men Excel 7

By now you must have figured out why it is boys who do wheelies and not girls…  Here is the reason in a nutshell: M show off to W because evolution has designed the former to be aggressive sexual advertisers, while the latter comparison shoppers! (Barash 2001).  This is also the reason why M talk and talk and talk – preferably in public!  And if some of them do not even know what they are talking about, this only goes to show that ‘the reach of their display often exceeds their grasp’! (Miller 2001) [ Hmmm… I’m not quite sure I like this last bit… I think I’d better stop here…. 🙂 ]

But we think we are – and not just in language either!  73% of American M but only 57% of W think they are better than average in terms of intelligence (Chabris & Simons 2010).

** For an amazing debate as to  why M are over-represented at the highest levels in academia (and other fields) you simply must watch Pinker vs Spelke (just click here).


Barash, D. & Lipton, J.E. “The Myth of Monogamy” Freeman 2001

Browne, K. “Biology at Work” Rutgers University Press 2002

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. “The Invisible Gorilla” Harper Collins 2010

Crawford, C. & Krebs, D. [eds.] “Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2008

Dunbar, R. “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language” Faber & Faber 2004

Forsyth, A. “A Natural History of Sex” Firefly 2001

Miller, G. “The Mating Mind” Vintage 2001

Pinker vs Spelke 2005 [www.edge.org]

Pinker, S. “The Blank Slate” Penguin 2002

Vugt, M. & Ahuja, A. “Selected” Profile Books 2010

Winston, R. “Human Instinct”  Bantam Books 2002

Zahavi, A. & Zahavi, A. “The Handicap Principle” Oxford 1997