A gender-specific job title
is a name of a job
that also specifies or implies the gender
of the person performing that job, such as stewardess
. A gender-neutral job title
does not specify or imply gender, such as firefighter
See also gender-neutral language.
There is extensive debate as to whether gender-specific job titles are appropriate in a professional setting. This debate reflects the debate over gender-neutral language in general. The side for gender-neutral job titles usually makes an ideological
argument, that gender-specific job titles at some level promote sexism
in the workplace. The side for the more traditional, gender-specific terms usually makes 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.
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.
Generally accepted writing conventions
Proponents of gender-neutral job titles believe they 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
instead of barman
. In the rare case where no useful gender-neutral alternative is available, they believe both genders 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, advocates believe gender can be attached to the title as appropriate (chairman or chairwoman).
Sometimes this formulation can lead to hyper-correcting 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 describe the person occupying the chair.
Proponents believe that job titles that add a suffix to make it 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, they believe that 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").
Terms such as "male nurse," "male model," or "female judge" are often used when the gender is irrelevant. Many advisors on non-sexist usage therefore deprecate them, saying that the statement of exception indicates that a worker of that gender is somehow an ersatz member of that profession. (Woody Allen jokes that his sister was the first woman to be a male nurse in New York.)
Special cases of gender-neutral/specific job titles
- In the case of waiter and waitress, the status quo seems to be to use those as gender-specific titles, with gender-neutral terms such as server (or sometimes waitron or waitstaff) rarely used in practice when dealing with an individual outside North America.
- Increasing numbers of women are calling themselves actors rather than actresses, especially in the live theatre. The Screen Actors Guild annually gives out awards for "Best Male Actor" and "Best Female Actor".
- The gender-neutral fisher has been used for fisherman; however, in Canada, Australia, Britain, Ireland and elsewhere many women who catch fish have inveighed harshly against this, demanding to be called fishermen, which they argued was the correct gender-neutral term to describe their career choice. Similarly, many female horseriders have expressed a preference to be described as horsemen.
- Military ranks which contain the suffix "man" almost universally remain unchanged when applied to female soldiers. For example, a female soldier serving in a Guards regiment is still called Guardsman Smith.
- A midwife can be of either gender, the term coming from an Old English term meaning "with the woman."
These guidelines are by no means a complete standard, as there is still much disagreement on proper usage. Many associations and governments publish handbooks of job titles featuring official recommendations for gender-neutral language.
Languages other than English
When words have a grammatical gender
associated with them, in many languages, there is an absolute requirement for morphological
changes to maintain sentence agreement. That is, there is a non-political content to the word changes, or inflection
. Nevertheless, in the socialist-egalitarian (if tightly controlled) atmosphere of the German Democratic Republic
gender-identification word endings were often dropped.