Take the survey

You are here

When to use "woman" and "female" in scientific writing?

Yateendra Joshi | Nov 18, 2014 | 26,690 views
When to use "woman" and "female" in scientific writing to keep the writing gender neutral or free of gender bias

Replacing mankind with humankind, chairman with chairperson, and manpower with workforce (or with such equivalents as "human resources," "labour force," and "personnel") is now routine: even if some writers use gender-specific terms, copy editors replace them with suitable gender-neutral substitutes.

However, what if the text requires gender-specific terms? In medical writing, it often needs to be specified whether the patients or subjects were men or women. In ecology, wildlife biology, and experimental zoology – domains that require that the sex of the animal in question be specified – the words female and male are routinely used, and the usage poses no problems. It is only when writers need to choose between female and woman that the choice becomes tricky (choosing between male and man is seldom a problem).

Fortunately, the advice offered by most style guides is straightforward: use female only when the biological distinction is relevant or needs to be preserved, as in female secondary sexual characteristics, female preferences that govern the choice of a mate, or calories required by nursing females. Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguist who has written a great deal about gender differences related to the use of language, says that she avoids "using “female” because it feels more like describing an animal than a person." In other situations, assuming that a distinction is necessary, use women (as in women subscribers, policewomen, women teachers, and so on).

What is not straightforward is the choice between making the distinction and not making it: it appears that readers, especially if they happen to be women, are more likely to be annoyed if the distinction is made without good reason than by the word woman or female – chosen by the writer in making that distinction. Even harder to explain is the illogical but common pairing of woman and male as the adjectives of choice when specifying the gender: Maddie York quotes the following recent headline from the Guardian "Women bosses earn 35% less than male colleagues." This pairing is encountered in academic writing too: Google Scholar, for example, when searched using the string [women*male], retrieved 3.6 million results but only 3.1 million when the string was changed to [women*men].

You might also be interested in knowing Should I use the word "sex" or "gender" in my scientific research paper?


Like this article? Republish it!
Knowledge should be open to all. We encourage our viewers to republish articles, online or in print. Our Creative Commons license allows you to do so for free. We only ask you to follow a few simple guidelines:
  • Attribution: Remember to attribute our authors. They spend a lot of time and effort in creating this content for you.
  • Editage Insights: Include an attribution to Editage Insights as the original source.
  • Consider a teaser: Yes, that’s what we call it…a teaser. You could include a few lines of this post and say “Read the whole article on Editage Insights”. Don’t forget to add the link to the article.
  • Re-using images: Re-publishing some of the images from our articles may need prior permission from or credit to the original image source.
  • Quick and easy embed code: The simplest way to share this article on your webpage would be to embed the code below.


Please copy the above code and embed it onto your website to republish.
Q & A

Have your own question?

Related Categories