This blog post is the first of two pieces on the topic of gender equality in materials writing. Here, Emily Hird discusses the need for awareness of gender issues in materials writing and gives some advice to writers. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us. 

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a news report that states that by age six, girls perceive themselves as less intelligent than boys. Other research shows that girls get less pocket money and are less likely to be encouraged to manage their money from a young age.

‘But it’s the 21st century!’ I hear you say. ‘Are we still talking about gender inequality?’ I’m afraid so. The UN’s gender inequality index makes for sobering reading. Take a moment to look up the country where you live and the markets which you write for. Women earn less money, hold fewer positions of authority and receive fewer educational opportunities. Full stop.

‘But I’m not sexist!’ I hear you say. To that I’d reply: We all have unconscious biases, to some degree. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this: we are, after all, the product of our society and our upbringing. It’s important to be self-critical because materials writing gives us privileged access into classrooms around the world. It is an opportunity to influence and inspire. We need to ask ourselves difficult questions: What more can we do to promote a gender equal society? Do our materials reflect an inadequate status quo, or do they paint a picture of something better?

This is not only about providing empowering examples for girls, though that is hugely important, of course. Boys are negatively impacted by this imbalance, too. Dismantling the visual imagery of an unequal society is also about breaking down the stereotypes which tell boys they need to be tough, for example. These are stereotypes which ultimately contribute to higher suicide rates in men, and which prevent men from taking their share of parental leave, even when this right is enshrined in law. Feminism, as Alan Rickman said, is to our mutual advantage.

So, what’s going wrong?

In preparation for writing this blog post, I asked around on Twitter and Facebook for examples of good and bad gender representation in ELT young learners’ materials. No one came forward with positive examples. Read into that what you will! People were much more forthcoming with examples of sexism, including – to my embarrassment – courses I have been involved in developing. The examples teachers sent chimed with my own findings. They ranged from the subtle to the frankly quite jaw-dropping. Let’s focus on the more subtle, more commonplace problems. My objective here isn’t to name and shame, but to show the proliferation of this kind of thing. Chiefly, the differences in representation are as follows:

  • Instances where the number of male characters outweighed female ones.
  • Dialogues where male characters were active while females were passive.
  • Instances where domestic responsibilities, especially cooking, were depicted as the exclusive preserve of females, and men were depicted as helpless or hopeless at fulfilling these roles.
  • A higher likelihood of men being presented in professional roles than women.
  • Damaging clichés: women and girls were more likely to be depicted as being interested in clothing, appearance and shopping.
  • A tendency to depict animals as male by default.
  • A tendency to show teachers only as women.

Does this kind of thing matter? We could argue that in isolation depictions like this might be OK. Women do go shopping sometimes. They do get things out of fridges and find lost socks. But there’s a cumulative effect, isn’t there? If all the examples of people cooking in a coursebook are female, that definitely sends a message. If none of the nurturing roles are male … Well you see what I’m getting at. Even though ELT materials represent a tiny fraction of the total number of images a student will see over the course of a day, they can easily be mistaken for reality by young learners (and, indeed, by adults). If those coursebook images reinforce a dominant narrative of inequality, then I’d suggest we’re missing an important opportunity to challenge the norm. In the classroom, at least, we can control what kids are exposed to.

We could also argue that this imbalance simply reflects reality. Around the world, mums are still more likely than dads to be the ones doing the family laundry and cooking tea. Wouldn’t it therefore look odd to consistently confound these unconscious expectations by presenting, for example, domestic dads and high-powered mums? Maybe it’s time to be brave enough to find out.

As materials developers, how can we facilitate change?

We hear it time and again: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Girls need to see images that reflect their future selves. Simple as that. It’s an issue of visibility. That means realistic images of female scientists, female bosses, female politicians, female decision-makers. Looking back in time, too, it means we should be including as many examples of female writers, artists, athletes and inventors as male ones.

It’s something content editors are trained to spot. The issue of representation is even included on some publishers’ editorial checklists before manuscripts go into production. I’m confident that most editors at major international publishers would pick up examples of glaring sexism in a manuscript. But how many writers and editors would actively write or rewrite activities in order to place women and girls in conspicuously empowered positions? How many subtle instances of sexism creep into materials because it’s not at the forefront of anyone’s mind to do a global check of whether all the teachers in a book are female, or whether boys show emotions as frequently as girls, or whether girls are as actively engaged in sports as boys?

‘Ensure balance’ is a phrase often used by editors to describe gender representation. But in order to have any impact in the small window when we have students’ attention, perhaps focusing on balance is insufficient. What difference might it make if, rather than ‘ensuring balance’, we opted to focus on ‘promoting’ and ‘inspiring’?

It’s also worth asking how often we use ‘market expectations’ as an excuse to avoid rocking the boat. As writers, are we consciously or unconsciously avoiding anything too ‘out there’ because we’re self-censoring? Certainly, if you’re writing schools material for Saudi Arabia, including a female racing car driver is not going to help anyone; it will be vetoed long before it reaches a classroom. That’s an extreme example. But in a more general sense, if all we do is hold up a mirror to a flawed world, nothing changes.

Some practical ideas for writers:

  • Write more detailed artwork and photo briefs. Why leave this to chance? Specify which roles you want to see taken by girls, and which by boys.
  • Comment on artwork roughs. Look for problematic depictions. Are girls wearing practical clothes? What about mums and dads? If dad is wearing a suit and tie while mum wears casual clothes, what message does that send?
  • Use what influence you can to reject stock photos which do not promote gender equality. Photo libraries are full of images of unhelpful stereotypes. Sheryl Sandberg of ‘Lean In’ fame has started a collaboration with Getty to increase the availability of photos that show more realistic, more empowering alternatives. It’s worth checking out.
  • Why not draw up an ‘empowerment checklist’ and use it to evaluate your material before submission? What characteristics and responsibilities have been ascribed to male and female characters? Are these clichéd? What about the ratio of males to females who are presented in active vs passive roles?
  • Actively research positive role models. Create a bank of resources and ideas which you can draw upon.
  • Encourage learners to be critical consumers of visuals. This is a valuable 21st-century life skill in any case, and one which we can develop. Ask students: What do you think about this picture? Is it realistic? Why or why not? Is your family like this? What message does this picture tell us?

What does it look like to get it right? Who is achieving this outside the world of ELT?

Today I watched an episode of ‘Fireman Sam’ in which the only female character was a daft shopkeeper who swooned over one of the firefighters, and I despaired over how far we still have to go. But then I thought about other favourite children’s programmes that give me hope. On the BBC there’s Bing, an animated rabbit whose main carer, Flop, is male. This single dad scenario should not be noteworthy, of course, but it is still very unusual to see on TV. And then there are publishers like Barefoot Books, whose artwork is exemplary when it comes to issues of representation (including race and disability, as well as gender). Their output includes excellent animated songs available on YouTube.

The website ‘A Mighty Girl’ is a brilliant resource, pulling together a huge collection of books and films which promote confidence, courage and diversity. If you like their Facebook page, you will get a stream of inspiring women and girls in your newsfeed. What a gift to materials writers!

Let’s not lose sight of how much of a difference we can make. All of us can take steps to promote gender equality more actively, myself most definitely included.

Emily Hird is a freelance ELT writer, editor and publishing consultant, specialising in young learners. Having been an ELT teacher at the Bell School and International House in Spain, she worked at Cambridge University Press for a decade, including four busy years as Publisher for ELT Primary. She now divides her time between editorial and writing work.

You can find her on Twitter @eahird and on her blog: