In this post, Elaine Hodgson writes about a study conducted by herself and Viviane Kirmeliene into the representation of women in coursebooks, presented at the 55th IATEFL Conference in Belfast (2022) as part of the MaWSIG Showcase day.

When we consider our role as ELT educators, materials writers and editors in a world that is becoming increasingly globalised, we see that it is no longer enough to simply help our students to develop their language skills. We also need to help them to use language as a meaningful tool that enables people to better understand each other and act mindfully in a diverse and changing world. 

It is impossible to talk about diversity without considering how the representation of women in coursebooks and other teaching materials has changed over recent decades. Indeed, there have been quite considerable changes, not only in photos and illustrations, but also in written and spoken texts, as well as in the messages authors and editors try to convey about representation and gender parity. But what is the extent of these changes? What is actually different, and what still needs to be done? It was with these questions in mind that we started investigating the representation of women in coursebooks throughout the past four decades. 

One of the most popular ELT coursebooks in the late 70s represents women in a way that would be unimaginable today: wearing revealing outfits and conducting conversations involving innuendo, seeming to be interested only in a man’s money or influence, or simply being, or pretending to be, naive or simple-minded. Of course, this context was not exclusive to ELT. It was heavily influenced by what was going on in other media at that time. These were the years in which we had Baywatch, Charlie’s Angels, Princess Leia enslaved and wearing a bikini in Star Wars, and a lot of sexualised adverts in magazines and on TV. In short, what was depicted in ELT materials in the late 70s, as far as women’s representation is concerned, was simply reflecting how women were seen at the time. It is important to note that this inappropriateness was generally meant to be funny or witty.

We do not expect to see these very sexualised depictions in coursebooks any more, and it is probably safe to say that ELT has become more aware of the role women play in society. In order to find out what has changed, two popular ELT coursebooks, aimed at young adults and adults, were selected for our study. Both series had their first edition published in the mid- to late 1990s and their latest edition published in 2017. Our focus was to investigate the representation of women in three main areas: family, jobs and free time, as these are common topics in ELT coursebooks, and the ones which tend to have a lot of (mis)representations. Our aim was to analyse how much progress we have actually made when it comes to fair and stereotype-free gender representation. Here is a summary of our findings:

  • Family: the first edition of both series has a very strong focus on the man as the centre of the family. Families in these books are always traditional (i.e. husband, wife and children in both texts and images). Most photographs and illustrations are of men. The most recent editions show a better balance in photos and illustrations, and a stronger focus on family life, such as the family doing things together. Family trees are a common element of coursebook units relating to the family. In recent editions, family trees appear to contain more instances of unmarried women, which is encouraging. However, it was interesting to see that in both series and in both the first and latest editions, all families are men’s: Joseph’s family, Patrick’s family, Jason’s family, and so on. There are no occurrences of families that ‘belong’ to women. 
  • Jobs: particularly in the first edition of both series, women are shown in roles that have traditionally been attributed to them, such as nurses, housewives and teachers. There was progress in the latest editions, but the majority of women are still shown in caring roles, as opposed to the wide variety of roles that women occupy in reality. One positive aspect of more recent editions is the fact that there are more women initiating conversations or depicted as main characters in texts. 
  • Free time: the biggest change we noticed in this area is in spoken and written texts, particularly in role-play dialogues. In earlier editions, women are shown as being more passive, or even lazy, whereas men are shown as being athletic, active, and full of energy. When a woman is shown as active, she is depicted in a more negative light, such as being a workaholic. In more recent editions there seems to be a more balanced approach, even though it is interesting to note that it is common for illustrations to represent women with an angry or bored expression.  

To sum up, when we look at more recent publications, we can see that gender representation has changed for the better: there are more examples of non-nuclear families, of men looking after children and the house, of women having fun on their own or with friends, of women in leadership positions, as solo parents and as protagonists of their own story. As such, we can say there has been progress in the way women are represented. This comes as a direct result of social pressure and a higher level of awareness of all people involved in the development of ELT material. However, we argue strongly that there is still a lot to be done. For instance, coursebooks hardly ever depict women who do not conform to a standard physical type, women who wear glasses, have grey or white hair or any sort of disability. We do not see any pregnant or breastfeeding women, or any transgender women. Portrayal of women of colour is still rare when compared to that of Caucasian women, and in many coursebooks, women are still not seen as leaders in their area of expertise or in their families. The changes we have seen throughout the years are encouraging, and that is why we, as ELT professionals, need to keep an open mind and continue doing our best to ensure better representation of women, a representation we know will keep changing. Change will not simply happen overnight.

Elaine Hodgson has a PhD in Linguistics from the Federal University of Ceará and a Master’s in Applied Linguistics from the State University of Ceará, both in Brazil. She taught English for over 30 years in public and private educational institutions, and has also worked on training and development projects for public school teachers at the US Embassy and the British Council. For 13 years she was the supervisor of the distance master’s course in TESOL at the University of Birmingham, UK. She is an author and editor of teaching materials, and has published a number of articles on teaching and more inclusive learning. She has a keen interest in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and has been a volunteer at Raise for ELT, aimed at producing more inclusive material, and EVE (Equal Voices in ELT), aimed at helping women become lecturers in ELT events.