Why there are too many women doctors, women MPs, and women bosses
‘Woman’ is not an acceptable adjective, any more than ‘lady’ once was. Let’s eradicate this misuse and give language a nudge in the right direction
An unmodified doctor at work. Doctor – male implied – is the standard, woman and junior the variants. They are the not-quite-doctors. Photograph: Glow Wellness/Alamy
I am a subeditor at the Guardian. I am a woman. I am not a woman subeditor. But “woman” and its plural seem to be taking over the role of modifier, so that now, there is no such thing, as far as much of the media is concerned, as a female doctor, a female MP or a female chef. Instead you hear or read about a woman doctor, a woman MP and so on.
The Telegraph seems to like this usage. Just in the past two months it has run the following headlines: “Britain’s lack of women MPs worse than in 64 countries worldwide”, “Kathy Lette calls for women writers to get their claws into Booker judges” and “Just who are the five women bosses of the FTSE 100?”. The BBC uses it, too – “Women bosses in Wales earn £4k less than men”, it reported in August. There’s no obvious ruling in either of their style books on favouring “woman” over “female”.
As far as the Guardian style guide is concerned, it is simply wrong to use “woman” and “women” in this way, because, it says, they are not adjectives. But Guardian reporters slip up on this quite frequently, and some of the slips aren’t caught by subeditors. On 19 August, our story about the gender pay gap was headlined “Women bosses earn 35% less than male colleagues” and littered with references to “women managers” until it was brought into line with style. “‘Women bosses’? Would you ever write ‘men bosses’?” asked one commenter.
Well, quite. No, we would not. Erin McCann, who works for the Guardian’s US office, said: “The comparable male version sounds so ridiculous no one would ever run it outside a feminist standup comedy routine: ‘man cyclist’, ‘man politician’, ‘man writer’. It’s just lazy writing, but for some reason plenty of otherwise well-reasoning writers and editors don’t see how jarring it really is.”
There would be no real problem if we used both “woman” and “man” as modifiers, but we don’t, so the implication is that a “woman manager” is a modification of the standard or natural form, or something slightly less than the full version. It behaves like “junior”: doctor, woman doctor, junior doctor, for example. Doctor – male implied – is the standard, woman and junior the variants. They are the not-quite-doctors.
A colleague on the news desk, the subeditor James Eagle, says using “woman” as an adjective is “somewhere between a hypercorrection and pejoration, plus a dollop of condescending sexism masquerading as chivalry.” He adds: “‘Female’ sounds a bit cold and clinical, and also is tainted by association with Nuts readers who refer to women as ‘females’, so people tie themselves in grammatical knots trying to avoid using it.”
“Woman doctor” and the like have a whiff of discomfort and nervousness, carrying with them a sense of grudging acceptance and a quiet bewilderment that women, those delicate creatures, can and do occupy the same jobs as men. They sound like a slip back to very bad habits, recalling the extreme sexism of “lady” as a modifier, as in the horrendously patronising “lady driver”.
The lineage with that older sexism has to be enough to justify avoiding “woman” as an adjective, because I’m afraid it can’t actually be banned on grammatical grounds. In some quarters, “woman” is starting to be counted as a modifier. The Chambers Dictionary isn’t fussed about the matter, and considers it a straightforward synonym for female, giving the example “woman doctor”. Collins allows it, too, listing it as a modifier, with the example “woman politician”.
Sometimes, when there’s some discrepancy about grammatical correctness, and when there are some readers who are uncomfortable with or offended by a usage, “it sounds old-fashioned/awkward/silly/just wrong” is the best justification for a style ruling. The language we use in the paper should not only reflect contemporary usage but give it a nudge in the right direction if it slips. The Guardian style guide is right to instruct journalists to write “female”, and the Telegraph and others should rethink all those recent headlines, but there are sociolinguistic justifications beyond the grammatical.
Maddie York is a female subeditor at the Guardian