Vol. 5. No. 1 F-1 April 2001
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***TESL-EJ Forum***

Sexist Language in ESL/EFL Textbooks and Materials

Karen Stanley, editor

Instruction of all kinds reflects not only a society's educational priorities and needs, but political and social aspects of a culture. Within the fields of English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL), these factors are reflected in, among others, educational policy decisions, national examination structures, classroom practices, teacher created materials, and the textbooks produced and chosen for classroom use.

Recently, Keith Folse, textbook author and coordinator of the TESOL M.A. Program at the University of Central Florida, brought up one of these aspects on the TESOL Material Writers Interest Section email list.

A student of mine is doing her M.A. thesis on the topic of sexist language in ESL/EFL materials. Her study is a partial replication of an article that appeared in the TESOL Quarterly in December, 1984.

The 1985 work found that many ESL materials were guilty of sexist language in these categories:

omission: Males appeared more frequently than females (In a grammar book, there is no reason why 8 of 10 examples have to deal with males.)

firstness: When a male and female are mentioned, the male is almost always put first (There is no real reason to say 'John and Mary' when 'Mary and John" would convey the same message.)

occupations: When an occupation is mentioned, it is more often assigned a male character name (John is a doctor. Keith is a teacher.) A check of occupations showed that when females were mentioned, they were usually put into a very small set of occupations (teacher, nurse, secretary).

The TESOL Quarterly article was good, solid research. The author (Porreca) looked at 10 of the most commonly used ESL books back then. (Those who have been teaching for a while will definitely recognize the titles!!!)

My student wants to see if there has been a change in 15 years and if so, in what areas.

I know that when I submit my materials (to the University of Michigan Press editor, for example), they are pretty meticulous about editing for sexist language. [-1-]

My student wants me to pose these questions:

What are your experiences with sexist language in ESL materials?
What experiences have you had with your editors?
Do you think omission of females is a big deal?
Do you think the firstness issue is a big deal?
Do you think the occupations issue is a big deal?

In sum, my student would like to hear our members' views and experiences on this topic!

The subsequent discussion on the list was both interesting and informative; contributing listmembers have graciously agreed to have their contributions included here in the same chronological order as they were originally posted. In keeping with their wishes, some people's names and others' email addresses have been omitted. Some contributors have also chosen to edit and/or expand their original posts.

Please feel welcome to respond either to the editor or to individual contributors.


Occupations is (are) a big deal! Most of the texts I've seen lately that are done in the U.S. make an effort to have a female doctor and male nurse, a female astronaut, etc. to be more politically and culturally correct. Does it reflect the realities? To some degree - maybe TESOLers can make it happen. As far as firstness is concerned, I confess I never thought much about that and I think it becomes stilted if we have to watch every sentence we write with an eye to which sex we used first in the last sentence. The same kinds of things that we look at in sexism are looked at by many committees, and therefore publishers today, in the areas of multiculturalism and special needs: showing people in wheelchairs, with hearing aids, glasses, etc. I think the idea is to be sure as many students as possible see themselves in the mirror rather than through a window as they use a textbook.

Richard Firsten

I think sexism has been eliminated to a great extent in ESOL materials, most especially in the U.S., Canada, and the UK in the past 15 years.

Because of feedback I've gotten over the years from my editors/publishers, I've learned to become much more cognizant of counting how many males and how many females are mentioned in a text. I do think that omission of females is a big deal and should not occur anymore. I feel the same way about occupations. I do feel, however, that the "firstness" issue is getting too picky. In my own writing I find that sometimes I'll list the man's name first and other times the woman's name first. It all depends. But I do think this so-called issue is pushing it a bit. [-2-]

Keith S. Folse <kfolse@mail.ucf.edu> TESOL M.A. Program, University of Central Florida, Orlando

In my student's replication of Porreca's study, she is using only the top 3 grammar series used in the U.S. (as determined by interviews with intensive English program directors and curriculum coordinators).

I will give you some of the VERY preliminary findings. One grammar book had a ratio of males to females that was just about at 1:1. Of 84 instances in the first chapter, the count was 40 to 44. We did a count of a second grammar book that is widely used and found the occurrences in chapter 1 as 138:25. This is about a 6:1 ratio of males to females. In addition, in this second book, the females are either neutral (She is in the room) OR in a negative setting (Susan lost her keys. Mary was confused...)

Someone mentioned how worrisome it would be if we had to count every time we used he or she... Wow, *I agree*! but.... if someone analyzed a book of mine and found that there are 100 males and only 20 females and the females are always just background people, well, I'd say that my writing is biased and needs fine tuning to be more representative.

I'm NOT trying to promote any agenda here. The question presented initially was: Has the situation of sexism in ESL materials changed since Porreca's study in 1984?

Andy Bowdler <andybowdler@thefreeinternet.co.uk>

I am aware that the student concerned is doing research into the US ESOL industry, but there seems to be an assumption that American (and other 'Western' PC-ness) is the norm.

Having worked in Nepal for 8 years, I have been struck by the fact that much of the good-quality, Western material available simply doesn't work there - because it has a totally different attitude to life - sexually, economically and relationally. For instance, putting the man first is culturally appropriate there, though the attitude is becoming less rigid as their attitudes are challenged by Western - often Christian - input.

Again, omission is often the reverse, as so many men do very little, it is about time that ESOL books encouraged them to do the ordinary things of life - cooking, washing, washing up, etc.

As for occupations, there are far greater divisions in work roles there, and these need to be catered for, even though we may well want to use the books to challenge preconceived ideas.

I know that this hasn't been wholly relevant to the issue at hand, but I believe that PC-ness has gone far beyond its useful bounds, and done more damage to the cause of equality (rather than 'egality') than just about anything else during the 20th century!! I also believe that we need to get our minds off the limited 'Western' market and look to help and encourage the huge 'Third World' ESOL market, which is crying out for quality, yet appropriate materials. [-3-]

Maggie Sokolik <sokolik@socrates.Berkeley.EDU>

Chair, TESOL Material Writers Interest Section:

I think Andy Bowdler has a point, and I want to make just two (or three).

I've been doing similar research for a while (and will be for years to come, I fear--it's a vast subject area). First, the great segmentation of the genders in jobs in texts is really a 'modern' issue. If you look at texts at the turn of the century (there are very few of course), work is much more egalitarian in its presentation. I was surprised to find a textbook written around 1890 that is as egalitarian as it gets. Most likely because there were no jobs like pilots, etc., but many of the references were to farmwork (or to blacksmithing!), and seemed less egregious in assigning roles to people as a way to teach English.

In fact, most of the early text examples had little to do with talking about occupation. I think this "occupation with occupation" is in fact, very Western and post-War (II that is). We need to remember that jobs are not the only possible topic of English discussion. It would be interesting not only to look at the distribution of roles in modern texts, but what percentage of exemplars are talking about jobs. No wonder we're so weary.

I've noticed a bit of a backlash to some of the self-consciously egalitarian texts. (I don't say PC, because I think it's a greatly misused and misunderstood term that's used just to insult rather than explain). I heard one student laugh once, saying, "Aren't there any *male* doctors in this book?" We do need to be careful not to go over the top in our attempts.

Finally, though, this is a really important issue. There are lots of social psychology studies that show that learners' imaginations are indeed limited by the models they're presented with in texts--girls who read about only male pilots are much less likely to indicate they're interested in flying than girls who read about both male and female pilots. We can't dismiss these issues as merely "PC".

And, really finally, besides sexism, we need to watch out for geographical chauvinism. There was another great study (Kachru & Kachru, early 90s?) about French textbooks. They found that while only a small percentage of the world's French speakers live in Paris, 90% of the "action" in textbooks takes place there. (I may have these percentages wrong, but it's the gist).

I think for us writers, the best antidote to these problems is that whenever possible, take your proposed book outside of the situation you wrote it in and try to teach it. If you're in the US, go off to Japan or Canada or wherever, and see how it flies (if you're aiming at an international audience). If you're writing in England, go to Southern California and pilot your materials. Maybe a bit of a dream... but in the cases where I have had the chance to do this, it has been a real eye-opener. [-4-]

Andrea Sholl <Shollandre@aol.com>

I would hate for ESL to become a political agenda and for American writers to think that we have to teach political correctness along with the language. I would go so far as to call this "teaching a moral lesson" a form of cultural imperialism.

Are we so self-assured that we think our nonsexist society is superior to others? Do we view traditional societies as inferior to ours? Are we be willing to take the risk of indoctrinating foreigners into our Coca-Cola society because we're so ethnocentric and believe so strongly in ourselves?

Of course we should be aware of and sensitive to racism, sexism, or any morally objectionable -ism. We should try to avoid assigning sex to roles and we can avoid moms-in-the-kitchen and dads-at-work. But we should draw a line at inflicting our own values at the risk of confusing students in their pursuit of learning English.

It is often easier for a student from other countries, especially countries where traditional gender roles predominate, to get to the language lesson when the doctor is male and the nurse is female. It takes an extra step for a student to realize who is referred to when there's an unexpected role change. (Even I have to pause when a friend refers to a doctor as "she" the first time that female physician is mentioned.)

Valerie Whiteson <valily@netvision.net.il> Ra'anana, Israel

Here we are -- worrying about the opposite problem. Most of the writers we've chosen for our new multicultural reader are female. For our book of writers whose first language is English and whose first culture is not (for example, Chinua Achebe, Jamaica Kinkaid, etc.) we looked for suitable male writers, but didn't find too many. What do you think about that?

My experience is that international students rarely know whether names (not from their culture) are male or female.

Keith S. Folse <kfolse@mail.ucf.edu TESOL M.A. Program, University of Central Florida, Orlando

Many thanks to all who have offered ideas, suggestions, and personal anecdotes from not only writing and editing materials but also from studying with foreign language materials.

I will be the first to admit that at times there can be a tendency to go overboard on "reversing the trend" so to speak. As an example, in a grammar manuscript, I had written "My aunt Charlotte can bake the best chocolate cookies." The editor changed it to "My uncle Ned." Well, the fact is that my uncle couldn't cook a thing if he tried, but my aunt Charlotte **DOES** bake the best chocolate cookies. (And in the book, Aunt Charlotte won out and got to make the cookies!)

I just came from another session of tabulating omission, firstness, and gender/occupations in ESL textbooks. It's exhausting, but the reward is high. While one grammar book is fair in its distribution of items, the second one is extremely lopsided. I don't think this is any agenda, hidden or otherwise. It's a grammar book, plain and simple, and the goal is to teach grammar. Thus, when the book teaches 3rd person singular (he, she, it), there is no logical explanation as to why 80% of the references are HE/MALE, 15% she/female, and 5% it/neutral.

What I have learned and am learning from this is that I as a materials writer need to pay more attention to this in my own materials. It is easy to have a discrepancy between what we think we do and what we actually do. [-5-]


If we can promote books anywhere in the world that foster a sense of equality rather than one of sexual abuse and denigration/fear/invisibility/, sorry, but I'm all for it - Western or Eastern, as a woman, I think a little P.C. can go a long way if done the right way to open the eyes of those who find their eyes the only part of the body it's okay to expose, and those who fear exposure of anything else will lead them into temptation. ---

Betty Azar <bazar@whidbey.com>

One slant on gender-balancing in the use of names that your researcher may not have thought of has to do with the length of the name and page-formatting. When I do grammar charts, every word is plotted out for formatting. Long names can cause line turnovers where I don't want them, so I often find myself choosing names in examples in charts by virtue of their shortness -- and, oddly, men have shorter names on the whole than women. For women I use Sue and Ann a lot. Amy and Pam aren't common enough. Pat can be male or female, so I avoid it. I also use Rita, Tina, Jane a lot -- for their shortness -- but sometimes even that extra fourth letter is one too many. Then for men I mostly choose from Tom, Bob, Jim, Al, Sam, Joe. Purely a space-available design consideration.

When I first started writing I was superconscious about the need to write nonsexist materials -- the sexism in the materials in other texts I was using was a source of consternation, just as in novels I read, sports pages, television shows, etc. In my books, I try to reflect gender roles in occupations as they actually exist and at the same time show the changing possibilities and practices in a changing world. It's a balancing act. In more general areas, I try to make sure that boys cry, girls are bold and adventurous, men wash dishes, and women solve problems -- and vice-versa, of course. Girls get to cry, women get to be wives and mothers and bake cakes, men get to be rescue people and perform acts of daring. It's all a balancing act.

As for the questions your research posed:

What are your experiences with sexist language in ESL materials?

As a writer, I work to avoid it at any cost.

What experiences have you had with your editors?

On the revision of Understanding and Using English Grammar, 3rd ed., (the blue book), at my request my development editor did a gender breakdown by chapter so we could check on being balanced. She keeps her eagle eye open for any possible gender imbalance as she knows it is a priority for me. When a writer is concentrating on subject matter (not gender distribution of fictional characters), imbalances can easily and innocently sneak in.

Do you think omission of females is a big deal?

Yes. Very.

Do you think the firstness issue is a big deal?

Not really, as long as there's at least some balance -- with, for example, the woman's name in couples mentioned first at least some of the time.

Do you think the occupations issue is a big deal?

Yes, women should of course be well represented as having occupations, as they often do in the cultural pools of characters from which most ESL/EFL writers create their fictional people -- As for what kinds of occupations, I think texts should reflect traditional norms while at the same time bringing in, in a balanced fashion, emerging non-traditional practices in a changing world -- and not one at the expense of the other.

It will be most interested to see your student's research. As a fellow writer, you know that writing purely nonsexist materials is not always as easy as it might seem! [-6-]

Richard Firsten

I think Andrea Sholl makes a good point about not getting too involved in political correctness. However, one thing to keep in mind is whether you're writing for the ESOL market (domestic) or the EFL market. The being aware of the number of male vs. female characters in a text and the roles they're playing (in careers and in social aspects) is definitely more appropriate for the domestic market.

Janis van Zante <jvzante@ix.netcom.com>

Adding some comments to the discussion of this issue:

What experiences have you had with your editors?

As to sexism and other -isms in a text in general (not just in the language), in some cases the publisher asks authors to adhere strictly to guidelines that specify that half of the characters/speakers are to be male and half female and that specify what percentage of characters/speakers are to be from which ethnic/racial group; authors are also required to include people with some obvious physical challenge and to avoid occupational and racial stereotypes. These "quotas" can be fulfilled chapter by chapter.

This is my experience. But I have a British friend who was working on an EFL course for a well-known British publisher in ca. 1992--when awareness of political correctness was becoming really acute. He was required to have a quota of characters of different races on each page. So on a page that had a text about a family and pictures of the members of the family, each of the parents and the children had to be of different races or ethnicity. My friend pointed out that this could well be confusing to students--discussion of the children being adopted or this being a blended family was not part of the scenario--but the editors refused to change the art.

Do you think omission of females is a big deal?

A very big deal.

Do you think the firstness issue is a big deal?

It's a subtle deal, but, as Maggie pointed out, one that works its ways on how we feel about ourselves, so it's important.

Do you think the occupations issue is a big deal?

Yes, but it's complicated. It can be enlightening or confusing or, more importantly, insensitive to students from some cultures--those who would be offended by, for example, a patient shown with a doctor or nurse of the opposite sex.

I think it's important for the student researching this issue to understand that authors don't always have complete control over what's published and that sometimes the audience for a particular text determines what's appropriate. [-7-]

Lionel Menasche <esleli+@pitt.edu> English Language Institute, University of Pittsburgh

To add my 2 cents of response Keith's original questions: omission, firstness, and occupations are indeed big deals. We do need to reflect the fairness concerns of the societies we live in, and we do need to fairly reflect the diversity of those societies.

Experiences with editors? Over a period of about 30 years of writing materials, I've found myself being gradually educated by increasing fairness concerns in the countries I've lived in, not by editors' comments. Social revolutions and evolutions do not start with textbook writers and editors -- I think we just reflect our societies. I've become more and more aware of ways in which I was not being fair in my materials writing -- for class handouts content also, not just for textbooks. I'm monitoring myself more and more on bias issues as I learn what my prejudices are -- it's a continuing process.

Reflecting diversity is just one side of the coin. There's an awful tension between that and trying (needing) to reach as broad an audience as possible. It's impossible to write materials that will be 'OK' in all regions and cultures of the world.

ESL/EFL materials have improved and are improving greatly, and have a way to go in avoiding sexism: male/female gender equity is of course not the only issue. Do our materials really reflect ALL the diversity of all English speaking countries? Hardly. Where are the members of various religions and their religious activities, Native Americans, Maoris, gays, vegetarians, people living in poverty...? Are various groups invisible or almost invisible in the materials because we don't see them or because we don't want to cause offence to target audiences that don't share our values? Must be the latter.

Is that good from an ideal standpoint? - No.

Is it realistic? - Yes.

Do I personally avoid certain subject matter in writing classroom handouts and textbook materials? - Yes.

Is that bad? - No, because I want to teach the language and have no desire to influence the political or moral viewpoints of students, and I don't want to have potentially offensive subject matter distract from teaching the language. This last point will, I realize, probably draw the response that subject matter and content are not separable -- point granted, but it is possible to be selective about topics.

Is the avoidance political because all education is political, as Christopher Renner reminds us? - Yes, but there are degrees of politicalness (new word I've just invented), degrees of bias on my part and on the part of my (often very mixed) target audience. Finding a compromise between my cultural biases and theirs is an ongoing work.

Andy Bowdler <andybowdler@thefreeinternet.co.uk>

In the latest batch of comments, Betty says that:

Pat can be male or female, so I avoid it.

I know it was in the context of female names, but why not make more use of names like Pat - surely that is part of the idea, so that we (and the students) aren't led to assume that a character is necessarily male or female.

In Nepali, there are several such 'bisexual' names - my favourite being Jyoti. In Nepali script, the female version has a short 'i' at the end, while the male has a long 'i' - but there is no way of telling in a conversation. How about a list of 'English' names that can be both - Pat, Andi/Andy, Phil, Jo, etc. Any others anyone can think of?

Andy (male!!) Bowdler [-8-]

Janis van Zante <jvzante@ix.netcom.com>

Andy wrote:

In the latest batch of comments, Betty says that:

Pat can be male or female, so I avoid it.
I know it was in the context of female names, but why not make more use of names like Pat - surely that is part of the idea, so that we (and the students) aren't led to assume that a character is necessarily male or female.

Sometimes this is just what you want--e.g., when you don't want to give away the gender of a character because you want students to speculate about the person. But usually students are going to need to use a pronoun to refer to the person, so it's much better if it's easy for them to distinguish which gender the person is--once they've learned which names are typically female and which male, that is.

Jan. (female)

David Kehe <dkehe@whatcom.ctc.edu>

After reading Andrea Sholl's message, I was reminded of the time recently when I used this sentence in an exercise: "The last time I talked to my dentist, she told me that I needed a filling." Some students were confused because they couldn't figure out who "she" referred to.

Christopher E. Renner <renner@ksu.edu> Manhattan, Kansas

"I hate for ESL to become a political agenda and for American writers to think that we have to teach political correctness along with the language. It is often easier for a student from other countries, especially countries where traditional gender roles predominate, to get to the language lesson when the doctor is male and the nurse is female. In other words, I think our business is to teach English and not force students to have an extra step to figure out that the physician referred to is a female."

Just one reply to the above opinion... whether or not you like it, all education is political. The question is: whose politics are you going to teach? Teaching a child or an adult to read is a political act. I think the discussion on sexism, while often present here for a western perspective, is in fact a real issue in every developing country I have visited as well as in many part of "western" culture. Numerous UN documents which address this issue, ie. the papers from the Peking Conference, or the Vienna Conference on Human Rights. From the point of view of developing countries and educators working in the field, some excellent titles exist, for example:

Globalization, Adult Education & Training: Impacts and Issues, Shirley Walters (Ed), Zed Books, London, UK ISBN 1862010269

Gender, Education and Training, Carolin Sweetman (Ed), Oxfam Focus on Gender, Oxford, UK ISBN 0855984007

These books take the assumptions stated above and point out that sexism is a real and oppressive experience for all people. It is not just a "western" luxury. [-9-]

Rosa Moraschi-Shattuck <kulshay@hotmail.com>

Often, well, sometimes when I am among people I don't know, I cannot at first determine their gender. Think of the times when you were in that position. What do you do? You quickly try to categorize the person, but in the interim, it was fun not identifying the true sex, but seeing various stereotypes popping up in your mind to help you pigeonhole the human being. Then did you sigh with relief when you finally got it.

One incident I want to share occurred in a class with students from Mexico, Italy, and Japan. We were discussing something that excited the students, especially a Mexican fellow who put his outstretched hand in front of a Mexican female's face to interrupt her comment and take over the conversation. I happened to be sitting beside him and the next time he did it, I gently took his arm and put it down by his side. I had presented techniques for getting the floor during an earlier class, so after class I discussed these with him. The point I want to make is that gestures and/or remarks used to gain the floor are important to teach in order for women to have an equal and more confident demeanor in discussion classes.

Valerie Whiteson <valily@netvision.net.il> Ra'anana, Israel

I said in one of my messages that most of our students have no idea whether names in English refer to males or females. So if they see a sentence like the one mentioned earlier about a dentist. Let's say, "Nancy filled my teeth and I had no pain." they will be sure to think that Nancy is a man.

It's not so easy or simple.

Here in Israel more and more babies are being given names that work for boys and girls: Adi, Shachar, Lior, etc. I like the trend.


Allow me to add to the chat.

1) In the mid 70's, I was teaching elementary ESL to a class of first graders from Puerto Rico, Greece and Iraq and was using a set of laminated pictures of women in professions (dentist, politician, bus driver, doctor, teacher, police officer, etc.) to teach the occupations. The students learned the names of the occupations and were making sentences with the words. The class was going along talking in English and trading the pictures when I saw the light bulb go off for one of the students when he sub-vocalized to himself, "Son todos mujeras!" and then got right back into the activity! I just smiled.

2) I didn't have any commercial materials for these same students, so I decided to make a set of cards out of some pieces of cardboard that I had at home. I made a list of about 30 verbs that the students and I could act out (a la TPR) and drew stick figures for all of them. Then I dressed up the pictures with earrings, pants, mustaches, dresses, etc. When I was done, I went back to see how many of them were men and how many women, just to check myself. To my surprise, the majority of these "action figures" were men. At the time I was going through my "women's liberation" stage after 6 years of EFL teaching in Afghanistan and Iran. [-10-]

3) When I was an ESL sales specialist in the early 80's, I was conducting a workshop for ESL teachers in the public schools in Loredo, TX. Since I was working for a Northeast-based company, they decided it was a good opportunity to vent to me about how sick and tired they were of ESL books that were geographically biased by always showing things like winter as a snowy time of the year, and always having pine or deciduous trees in the illustrations. As an editor I ask my Production Editors to have geographical diversity in my books.

Diversity is a very important issue and I feel that we, as material writers, have an obligation to be as embracing of diversity as we can. Let's take a look at the diversity of the attendees at both international TESOL and our regional affiliates, in our teaching staffs, in our publishing houses, in our circle of friends, and in our books, for starters. We may have some interesting observations to make and talk about when we meet in person and on-line.

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