IATEFL Belfast 2022: Women in coursebooks: then and now – how representation has changed. Elaine Hodgson and Vivian’s Karmeliene

What are the ELT ‘mistakes’ in this image and this text? This was from a popular coursebook, and was designed to be humourous.

This book was published in the same year as Return of the Jedi was released, when there was only one woman in the story, and she was wearing a bikini on the poster. It was also the same year as She’s so cold by the Rolling Stones. Pretty Women, Baywatch, Victoria’s Secret Angels – these were all typical of the context at the time.

They looked at two popular series from 1994/1999 and 2017, focussing on elementary level, and family, jobs and free time.


Here’s an example of family:

In the original page, there is a strong focus on the man’s family. Only one question in the exercise is focussed on the woman’s family.

In the newer edition, there is an example of a solo woman with children, but with no information in the teacher’s book about how the image might be used. The family tree is Joseph’s family – still the man’s family. There’s one solo woman in the family tree, and she’s the only woman who’s unhappy in the image.

In the dialogue from an old book, the focus is on marriage. It’s expected that if you’re married, you have a husband. In the more modern edition, the focus is on siblings. In a dialogue, it’s usually the man who starts the conversation.

The man is still in the foreground

In the other series, we have Patrick’s family in the old edition. His daughter is a nurse – it’s a traditional role. In the new edition, it’s Max’s family. There’s a solo woman in the family tree too. In the texts, the focus is on the family as a whole. There is a line ‘I often help my mum or dad cook the meals’. To finish the sequence, students are invited to talk about their own families.

In the 5th edition, we have Jason’s family.

Some numbers related to family units


In a unit about jobs, in the old edition, there were stock images, and extra information about marital status and family. In the new edition, it’s a real woman (you can find her on the internet), with real images of her working, and the information about her family is relevant to the text not randomly added in.

In the focus on vocabulary, in the old edition women are generally doing jobs traditionally associated with women. In the fifth edition, many of the roles are also similar. In the exercise, four out of five of the female jobs are caring jobs – women always have the caring roles, never men.

In the new edition below, in the grammar focus, ‘she’ is used as the pronoun. The woman starts the conversation, not the man.

Some numbers related to jobs and women

Free time

The old edition – the title is ‘Take it easy’, but the female character asks ‘What’s free time?’

The woman ‘doesn’t work on weekdays’ because she looks after her family (!)

In the current edition, the footballer works during the week and plays games at the weekend. There are no women in the spread.

In the old edition, the women generally don’t look happy or have neutral expressions:

In the new edition, there’s a much wider range of images in terms of gender, age, roles:

In the other book, in the old edition, the man is focussed on keeping fit, the woman is the couch potato. In the new edition it’s flipped. The woman is interested in keeping fit, but doesn’t show she’s happy about it.

In the old edition, there are more ‘mistakes’! In the new edition, the woman starts the conversation, but the man is assertive and says he’s good, while the woman says she’s not very good.

We’re getting there

In this book, there are real photos of families so they seem more diverse.

Two teenage girls working out – women can do their own thing without having to interact with men all the time:

There are examples of women doing different things in coursebooks too: a female judo fighter, female activists.

There is progress in the world too: Star Wars posters that are a full image of a woman.

I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. [I missed the second half of the quote!]

Jane Austen

4 thoughts on “IATEFL Belfast 2022: Women in coursebooks: then and now – how representation has changed. Elaine Hodgson and Vivian’s Karmeliene

  1. Two teenage girls working out – women can do their own thing without having to interact with men all the time

    That can cause potential problems if it’s audio not video.

    A man and a woman’s voice are almost instantly distinguishable from other and so it can help in comprehension.

    When two women are speaking together you potentially lose that distinction.

    (Yes, you can change the accents, but it’s actually quite hard for even B1-B2 level students to be able to distinguish e.g. a Scots from an Australian accent).

    It’s not an insurmountable problem and, actually, it can be the basis of a deeper level of comprehension task.

    Even so, it’s perhaps worth noting.


    1. That’s true, and it’s something they mentioned in passing elsewhere but I may not have noted down. I think this was a higher level book where students might find it a little easier to distinguish, but I’m not 100% sure.

      Liked by 1 person

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