I received the following request from Gary Rector of Salt River Project.

I follow your thoughtful writing daily; would you consider writing about the use of “woman” instead of “female” as an adjective? Reading something like “the first woman manager in our company” makes me cringe. I’m sure that the meaning is not that the person is the first to manage a woman. “Woman engineer” is even worse!

It’s a great topic: I get to talk about gender equality and writing in the same article. :)

Using phrases like “woman manager”, “woman engineer”, or “woman doctor” is problematic. As Gary alluded to in his message to me, these phrases imply someone who manages women, engineers women, or doctors women.

The thing is, however, that replacing “woman” with “female” doesn’t solve the problem: the phrases would simply imply someone who manages females, engineers them, or doctors them. Besides, in my opinion (and this is simply a stylistic issue), “female” should be restricted to referring to woman and girls collectively.

Also, using phrases like “woman manager”, “woman engineer”, and “woman doctor” is sexist. After all, when was the last time you heard someone say “man manager”, “man engineer”, or “man doctor”? It’s usually just “manager”, “engineer”, or “doctor”. You should use that same convention regardless of the gender of the subject.

I recommend for instances like this that you rephrase the sentence. Compare the following:

  • Sue is the first woman manager in our company.
  • Sue is the first woman to become manager in our company.

The second example removes the ambiguity of the first.

Note that the examples above are one of the few instances where mentioning the gender of the subject could be vital to the meaning of the sentence. Other times, mentioning the gender might be extraneous and do nothing more than perpetuate gender stereotypes. For example:

  • Dr. Smith is a woman dentist.
  • That office is where a woman engineer works.
  • I sat beside a woman manager on my flight.

In each of these example, you could leave out the word “woman” and still get your point across. Leaving it in simply reinforces that a woman being a doctor, engineer, or manager is an exception, and in 2014, it’s not.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

About Kim Siever

I am a copywriter and copyeditor. I blog on writing tips mostly, but I sometimes throw in my thoughts about running a small business. Follow me on Twitter at @hotpepper.

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