Where are the Women?

This week I am privileged to be a keynote speaker at the 21st International Congress of the Brazilian Association for Distance Education in Bento Goncalves, Brazil. The scholarly stimulation, hospitality, weather and fine Brazilian wine have been great – but something is wrong. Only 1 of the 12 keynote speakers and none of the 10 officials who addressed the opening ceremony are women.

This inequality reminded me of the ICDE World Congress held at Penn State in 1997, when a very brave women marched to the stage during the closing ceremonies, grabbed the mic and demanded to know if it was really possible for a woman to talk from the stage at this event! Seems like not much has changed since then.

In this post, I provide a list for distance and online education conference organizers of female distance education scholars who I have personally heard give high-quality keynote addresses. I approach the task with some trepidation because I am sure that I have omitted more than one very qualified scholar from this list and hope to be able to edit it with the help of the crowd.

But first a rationalization for producing the list.

First, women have always and continue to be in the majority of distance education students in every country in the world from which I have seen comparative data. Given our need to focus on the learners, it is quite likely that female scholars and researchers have greater or least an equal number of relevant insights into learner needs and behaviours.

Second, women scholars have very close to half of the peer-reviewed publications in our field and a disproportional number related to many of the key topics upon which these conferences tend to focus upon. In a 2010 paper titled Gender and collaboration patterns in distance education research. (Open Learning, 25(2), 95-114), my friends Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Christina von Plummer reviewed 695 peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2008. They found that just slightly less than half (48%) of the single author publications were written by women (the gender of multiple authored papers was not provided). Stereotypically, women scholars were more likely to use qualitative methods and significantly more likely to focus on important subjects including student support and interaction.

So why so few keynote speakers? An obvious answer is an underlying sexist selection process since many organizations (including some distance education organizations) are dominated by men. It could also be that women are less able to travel due to heavier childcare and domestic responsibilities. Women might also be less willing to self-promote themselves so as to gain keynote invitations. Because of these and likely other reasons, a vicious circle develops in which women don’t get asked and thus don’t gain either the exposure nor the opportunity, to develop the skills needed to be effective international keynote speakers.

So what’s to be done? As a small contribution, I provide a list below of very competent female scholars and researchers. I have heard each of these persons give one or more keynotes speeches and I can attest that they each did a fine job. If they didn’t they wouldn’t appear on this list! In addition, all of these women have published regularly in peer-reviewed open and online or distance learning journals.

First, a few caveats. All of these women have spoken in English. There are likely many others addressing audiences in other languages. Secondly, I know all of these women personally and count them all as both friends and acquaintances -so the list likely shows my biases. Third, I had some difficulty in condensing the areas of scholarship into one or two words -many have eclectic research agendas. Finally, I am sure the list is incomplete and I welcome readers to nominate themselves or a deserving colleague as a comment to this post.

The list (in no particular order) follows:

Name Nationality/Residence University or employer Area of expertise
Insung Jung Korea/Japan Int. Christian U. Quality Issues
Grainne Conole Ireland/UK U of Bath Ed Tech
Belinda Tynan Australia/UK OU UK Leadership
Elizabeth Murphy Canada Memorial U Learning and Stud. Support
Allison LittleJohn UK Glasgow/Caledonian MOOCs, OERsBlended
Jan Herrington Australia Murdoch Authentic Learning
Elsebeth Sorenson Denmark Aalborg Coop and collab Learning
Darcy Hardy USA Blackboard K12 DE
Lani Gunawardeni Sri Lanka/USA U of New Mexico Cultural issues
Mpine Makoe South Africa UNISA Mobile, Phenomenology
Marti Cleveland- Innes Canada Athabasca COI, Blended
Kumiko Aoki Japan OU Japan Learning, mobiles
Asha Kanwar Canada/India COL OERs, Development