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Gender-specific job title

A gender-specific job title is a the name of a job that also specifies or implies the gender of the person performing that job, such as fireman or firewoman. 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, and there is perhaps some truth to this statement.

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 gender-neutral replacement (e.g. the third person singular pronoun he), there are gender-neutral versions of nearly all job titles. It is usually considered good style to use these versions where possible. A few guidelines follow.

Gender-neutral job titles should be used, especially to refer to hypothetical persons; for example, firefighter instead of fireman; 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, both genders should be used.

It is usually regarded as proper to refer to a person whose sex is known with the suffix -man or -woman ("Ms. Jones is our new chairwoman" but "We are seeking a new chairperson"). Sometimes this can lead to a sort of 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)

Nearly all job titles that add a suffix to make the feminine should not. Usher, not usherette; comedian, not comedienne. Many of these are almost entirely obsolete now, such as sculptress, poetess, and aviatrix. The word "lady" should be avoided, except if the masculine is "lord" (landlady). Expressions like "lady doctor" are rarely appropriate; if the sex really is relevant, woman or female should be used instead ("my grandmother was the first woman doctor in the province").

Terms such as "male nurse", "male model", or "female judge" are often (mis)used when the gender is irrelevant; this usage should be avoided as they sound nonsensical to many listeners. (Woody Allen jokes that his sister was the first woman to be a male nurse in New York.)

A few specific cases deserve special attention:

  • In the vexed case of waiter and waitress, the status quo seems to be to use those as gendered titles, with non-gendered terms like 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 suffix -man in ombudsman is not a masculine, as the term is from Swedish. Nevertheless, backformations such as ombudsperson and ombuds exist.
  • 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 a horseman.

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.

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