Gender marking in job titles

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One of the chief issues with which the movement for gender-neutral language has been concerned is that of gender (sex) specificity in job titles.

A gender-specific job title is a name of a job that also specifies or implies the gender of the person performing that job. For example, in English, the job title stewardess implies that the person is female; the job title policeman implies that the person is male. A gender-neutral job title, on the other hand, is one that does not specify or imply gender, such as firefighter or lawyer. In some cases it may be debatable whether a title is gender-specific; for example, chairman appears to denote a male (because of the ending -man), but the title is also applied sometimes to women.

Proponents of gender-neutral language generally advocate the use of gender-neutral job titles, particularly in contexts where the gender of the person in question is not known or not specified. For example, they prefer flight attendant to stewardess or steward, and police officer to policeman or policewoman. In some cases this may involve deprecating the use of certain specifically female titles (such as authoress), thus encouraging the use of the corresponding unmarked form (such as author) as a fully gender-neutral title.

The above applies to gender neutrality in English and in some other languages without grammatical gender (where grammatical gender is a feature of a language's grammar that requires every noun to be placed in one of several classes, often including feminine and masculine). In languages with grammatical gender, the situation is altered by the fact that nouns for people are often constrained to be inherently masculine or feminine, and the production of truly gender-neutral titles may not be possible. In such cases, proponents of gender-neutral language may instead focus on ensuring that feminine and masculine words exist for every job, and that they are treated with equal status.


The suffix -man had the meaning "person" in Old English (see man), but in present-day English it is predominantly masculine. Thus job titles that include this suffix, such as fireman, salesman and alderman, generally imply that the holder is male. While some of these job titles have feminine variants (e.g. alderwoman), others do not, because traditionally the positions in question were not occupied by women.[1] For most such titles, gender-neutral equivalents now also exist, such as police officer (for policeman or policewoman), salesperson or sales representative (for salesman or saleswoman), etc. However, some proposed gender-neutral terms have not attained such common usage (as with fisher as an alternative to fisherman). Military ranks with the suffix -man normally remain unchanged when applied to females: for example, a woman serving in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers might be known as Craftsman Atkins.

In the case of chairman, gender-neutral alternatives (such as chair and chairperson) exist, although in some contexts the word chairman is used even where it denotes (or could denote) a woman. For details, see Chairman.

Feminine terms such as actress, usherette and comedienne are marked with respect to the masculine (actor, usher, comedian) both formally (i.e. something is added to the masculine form) and in the sense that only the masculine form can be used generically to describe a mixed-gender group of people.[1] This means that the "masculine" form can in fact serve as a gender-neutral term (a solution often favored by proponents of gender-neutral language, who thus tend to deprecate or restrict usage of the specifically feminine forms). Some such feminine forms, such as poetess and authoress, are now rarely used. Others, such as actress, remain common, although increasing numbers of women are calling themselves actors rather than actresses, especially in the live theatre.[citation needed] The Screen Actors Guild annually gives out awards for "Best Male Actor" and "Best Female Actor".

The term waiter appears to retain masculine specificity (with waitress as the corresponding feminine term). Other gender-neutral terms have therefore been proposed, such as server (alternatives include waitron, waitstaff or waitperson), though these are rarely used outside North America.

The term midwife looks superficially to be feminine (since it ends with -wife), but it is used for either gender. The term comes from an Old English term meaning "with the woman".[2]


A change to gender-neutral job titles can be controversial.[by whom?] This debate reflects the debate over gender-neutral language in general.

The case for switching to gender-neutral job titles usually makes an ideological argument, that gender-specific job titles at some level promote sexism in the workplace. For example, fire chiefs have argued that when the public uses the term "fireman" instead of "firefighter", it reinforces the popular image that firefighting is only a job for men, and thus makes it difficult for them to recruit women.[3]

The case for the more traditional, gender-specific terms is usually a practical argument, that replacing the historical terms everywhere they appear (in documents, etc.) would be difficult and expensive, or that it is unnecessary. However, there are many (in particular feminists) who would claim that this argument is really a backlash against the argument for gender-neutral language.[citation needed]

There is much difficulty in resolving this debate, as in the case of gender-neutral language in general; however there is at least one difference. Whereas in the general case, there is often no appropriate singular gender-neutral replacement (e.g. the third person singular pronoun he, although the use of singular they is increasingly common), there are gender-neutral versions of nearly all job titles.

During the 19th century, attempts to overlay Latin grammar rules onto English required the use of feminine endings in nouns ending with -or.[citation needed] This produced words like doctress and professoress and even lawyeress,[citation needed] all of which have fallen out of use; though waitress, stewardess, and actress are in modern use.

Use of the term chairman remains widespread in predominantly male sectors of society, but chairperson or chair is now widespread in society in general, at least in the USA, Canada and increasingly in the U.K.[4] For example, the boards of most Fortune 500 companies in the United States are presided over by a "chairman" and also the overwhelming majority of the (FTSE 100) companies in the United Kingdom have a "chairman", while committees in the United States House of Representatives are presided over by a "chair", as of 2009.[5] Since most of these are, however, men, a more correct description of the current language situation needs to consider use in organisations whose chairperson is a woman. Less than half of the members of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel accept the use of the word chairman in describing a woman.[6]

Some usage guides, such as The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, advocate gender-neutral language in circumstances where all sexes are meant to be included. For instance, a business might advertise that it is looking for a new chair or chairperson rather than chairman. Gender-neutral language proscribes chairman, on the grounds that some readers would assume women and those of other genders are implicitly excluded from responding to an advertisement using this word.[7]

Generally accepted writing conventions[edit]

Proponents of gender-neutral job titles believe that such titles should be used, especially when referring to hypothetical persons. For example, firefighter instead of fireman; mail carrier, letter carrier, or post worker rather than mailman; flight attendant instead of steward or stewardess; bartender instead of barman or barmaid. In the rare case where no useful gender-neutral alternative is available, they believe both male and female terms should be used.

Proponents of gender-neutral language advocate the use of a neuter form when/where appropriate. For example, a company may seek to fill a vacancy and hire a new chairperson. Since a gendered individual doesn't currently hold the position, its title reverts to a neuter form. Once that position is filled, many advocates believe gender can be attached to the title as appropriate (chairman or chairwoman).

Sometimes this formulation can lead to inconsistent gender-specific usage, in which women become chairpersons but men remain chairmen. Some women opt to use the word chairman in preference to chairwoman, subject to the style Madam or Mister prefixing the title, which they perceive to be gender-neutral by itself. Particularly in academia, the word Chair is often used to designate the person chosen to oversee the agenda at meetings of an organized group.

The principle of gender-neutral language dictates that job titles that add suffixes to make them feminine should be avoided. For example, "usher", not "usherette"; "comedian", not "comedienne". Some of these are almost entirely obsolete now, such as sculptress, poetess, and aviatrix. If gender is relevant, the words woman or female should be used instead of "lady" ("my grandmother was the first female doctor in the province"), except if the masculine is "lord" (as in "landlady"). In the case of landlord or landlady, it may be preferable to find an equivalent title with the same meaning, such as proprietor or lessor. However, when a female is in the office of "the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod," it is changed to "the Usher of the Black Rod" in Canada.

Advisors on non-sexist usage deprecate terms such as "male nurse," "male model," or "female judge" because such terms are often used when the gender is irrelevant. These advisors say that the statement of exception indicates that a worker of that gender is somehow an inferior or atypical member of that profession.

Languages other than English[edit]

When words have a grammatical gender associated with them, in many languages, they may impose morphological requirements to maintain sentence agreement. That is, there is a non-political content to the word changes, or inflection. Nevertheless, gender-identification word endings are sometimes dropped, something that happened often in the former East Germany, for example.[8] Sometimes an entirely new or etymologically unrelated word is coined. For example, when men in France wanted to become midwives, up till then an exclusively female occupation, they chose not to adapt the existing term sage-femme ("wise woman"), and instead coined maïeuticien.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Aarts, Bas and April M. S. McMahon. The Handbook of English Linguistics. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2006, ISBN 978-1-4051-1382-3, p. 737.
  2. ^ "Midwife". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ "Why We Are Campaigning To Shake Off The Outdated Term 'Firemen'". HuffPost UK.
  4. ^ American Heritage Dictionary Archived 2008-04-21 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ House language becomes gender neutral
  6. ^ "Only 48 percent (43 percent of the women and 50 percent of the men) accept the use of the word in Emily Owen, chairman of the Mayor's Task Force, issued a statement assuring residents that their views would be solicited."[1]
  7. ^ The Cambridge Guide to English Usage pp 243,4
  8. ^ Review of: Mary Fulbrook. The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-10884-2.

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