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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