Following last week’s blog post on Writing to promote gender equality, we turn our attention this week specifically to writing Business English materials. Claire Hart shares her experiences working with Business English materials and outlines the shortcomings she found. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us. 

I could quote so many statistics to show how women receive unequal treatment in the workplace, but why waste your time when you could just Google them? Googling probably isn’t even necessary because, if you’re female, you’ve likely experienced sexism in the workplace first-hand, even if you didn’t realise it at the time. Sexism typically manifests itself in subtle, but nonetheless very damaging, ways: under-estimating women’s abilities, not taking their opinions seriously or ignoring them altogether, and accusing female employees of being ‘too emotional’ or too distracted by their children when they struggle.

During the ten years I spent doing in-company English training in Germany, numerous pregnant English learners told me that when they returned from maternity leave, the job they’d been doing would already have been given to someone else. They would have to take whatever job was available, even if it wasn’t something they wanted to do. Others had been told that it wasn’t possible to do their job on a part-time basis when they came back to work, as they’d wanted, and they’d have to either take or leave the full-time option. The women who told me these stories didn’t complain about their situations; they accepted them as a normal part of being a woman in the workplace. Indeed, the treatment of women as ‘unequals’ in the workplace seems to have been normalised. No wonder this normalisation has extended to Business English and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) materials over the years, and gender stereotyping is still quite widespread.

One of the worst offenders in terms of gender stereotyping in Business English materials that I’ve come across is probably the in-house materials of a well-known US language school chain. It will remain nameless, but if you’ve worked in language schools, you’ll probably be able to guess which one I’m talking about. I was asked to convert some of their print materials into a digitally compatible format, so I had to read the material very carefully. What I found was the inclusion of ‘homemaker’ in the section on jobs; it seemed to be there simply to give any female course participants something to say because they didn’t actually have ‘real’ jobs. Unsurprisingly, the audio material contained men saying, ‘I’m an engineer/manager/technician’ and then a woman saying, you guessed it, ‘I’m a homemaker.’ Now, don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with taking care of your home and your family. What is not okay is the stereotyping of women as only being able to have that role. More worryingly, it seemed that nobody else had noticed that there was anything unusual or inappropriate about this presentation of gender roles.

Women are frequently perceived as either not involved in the workplace or as ‘accessories’ or ‘supporting actors’, who make it possible for men to do their jobs. This perception is reinforced by the stock photos publishers use. These often portray female receptionists smiling accommodatingly at businessmen, close-up shots of male hands doing technical work and a man – presumably the chair – sitting at the head of the table during a meeting. One example of a book where women are seen ‘doing more stuff’ is a coursebook entitled Shopping Matters 1. Here, women are working as supermarket clerks and chefs and taking control in what is apparently their natural milieu – food shopping and food preparation. Meanwhile, the men are doing things that require physical strength: working as security guards or butchers, and even shoplifting. These men aren’t portrayed in a particularly positive light; society seems to value their brawn more than their brains. But if women are presented as weak and dull, men have to be strong and complicated, with the result that both are presented as mere caricatures – Popeye and Olive Oyl. When gender stereotyping happens, it’s often not only women who lose out; men do, too. That’s why this is an issue that everyone needs to engage with.

Where women are seen taking on traditionally male roles in Business English or ESP materials, there’s often a sense of tokenism about their presence. Editors may think that if you throw in a female office worker here and there, nobody can accuse you of sexism. We’ve probably all seen the promotional photos for university engineering courses, which show a young female and a young male engineer getting their hands dirty; in reality, the ratio of females to males on these courses may be more like 1:10 than 1:1. We don’t need women added to Business English and ESP materials for the sake of it – mere baubles for display we are not – but we do want them taking active roles in the ‘storylines’ of the materials, just as men do. We don’t want materials writers to automatically assume that a CEO has to be male.

Women are still struggling to assert themselves as human beings who can have a positive impact on the world beyond their kitchens, an impact which is worthy of being recorded in the history books. It’s not that women never did anything until the 1990s; it’s just that very few people recorded and celebrated what women did before then. This is why, when Business English coursebooks roll out the standard ‘great leaders’ activity, these are overwhelmingly or exclusively ‘great men’. A widely used coursebook features the profiles of three great business leaders: Levi Strauss, Zhou Haijiang and Joseph Rowntree. Yes, you’ve spotted it: they’re all men. The book was written by a man, too.

This may be a controversial statement, but my experience suggests that male authors are more likely than female authors to write women out of the workplace; this is particularly true of older white males. I edited the work of one male author, who insisted on only using ‘he’ and ‘him’; he wrote, for example, ‘If the buyer is unhappy with the goods that have been sent to him, he will want to make a complaint.’ I really made use of the search function on that Word document to help me go through and change every ‘he’ to ‘he/she’ and every ‘him’ to ‘him/her’. The publisher, another woman, said she’d completely missed this but commended me for making the changes. Even for women, the dominance of the masculine over the feminine still feels so normal that it goes unnoticed. Even a fully paid-up feminist like me has found herself putting a Dominic or a Juan in the starring role in the materials she writes because that just seems the thing to do.

Perhaps in the ELT world, we can learn something from the actor Geena Davis, who set up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007 to promote the equal representation of women in the media. When filmmakers come to her for advice, she advises them to make sure that 50% of the people who’ll be on the screen throughout the film, from the main characters to the extras in crowd scenes, are female. She tells them to make notes on their scripts along these lines: ‘Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts walk through a park where 50% of the people are women and 50% are men.’

In fairness, with regard to gender equality and the removal of gender bias in Business English materials, we have seen an improvement over the last decade. Business English authors tell me they are already working on materials which ensure that there’s already a 50/50 split between male and female office staff and people in leadership positions, as well as racial diversity – a whole other big and important issue for another day. On the one hand, we could say that presenting equal gender splits in the workplace that don’t exist in reality is tokenism and, therefore, unhelpful to the ‘real struggle’ for gender equality because it makes people think a battle that hasn’t yet been won is already in the bag. On the other hand, I believe that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ Women need to be more visible; they need to be seen making a positive impact in the world in as many places as possible. The world of Business English materials, as one part of our learners’ world, shouldn’t be any exception.

Claire Hart is a freelance ELT writer, editor and published author. She specialises in Business English, ESP and upper-secondary materials and feels as at home writing a coursebook as she does creating online courses. After spending ten years writing materials, working in corporate language training and teaching undergraduates in Germany, Claire is now based in the UK. You can email Claire at:  clairehart @ or find her on Twitter at: claire_hart