Words Matter: Use “Woman”, not “Female”, to be Inclusive
This Women’s History Month, as we celebrate the accomplishments of women throughout history, it feels appropriate to reflect upon the language we use to do so.
Historically, “female” has been widely accepted as the adjective form of “woman.” However, this usage is not only exclusionary, but frankly inaccurate. Not everyone who was born female is a woman, and not every woman was born female.
The term “female” has a biological connotation, typically referring to sex assigned at birth based on anatomy and is also used to describe non-human animals who are capable of bearing young or producing eggs (Merriam Webster).
Colloquially, “woman” has referred to gender—one’s internal understanding of their identity and how it fits into social constructs. This usage includes transgender women, who were not born female, and assumes that a woman is any human who holds that particular gender identity, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth.
So, as our understandings of biological sex and gender have been slowly teased apart, these terms have grown away from being interchangeable synonyms. Essentially, “female” connotes a biological category, while a “woman” is a whole human person. As a result, while “woman” technically is a noun (Merriam Webster), many are embracing its use as an adjective to achieve a more inclusive meaning that emphasizes gender over biological sex. In fact, some consider “female” to be reductive not only to trans women but to cis women as well, reducing their identity to a mere reproductive capability (New Yorker).
Other modifications to the word “woman” have appeared in recent years in an attempt to be inclusive, but have since been deemed less than ideal. For example, “woman-identifying” or “female-identifying” was a widely used construction to refer to one’s gender identity. However, the word “woman” is sufficient—adding the suffix “-identifying” can signal that there is a difference between a “real” woman and a “woman-identifying” person. It implies that while someone may “identify” as one thing, the rest of the world can see that they are “really” something else.
As a professional or brand, make a point to use the correct, inclusive terminology when referencing women. Don’t say female, when you mean to say woman. Doing so will show your audience that you are aware of who they are and have made a point to include them. You may never have thought twice about these terms—and for decades, neither did many. But that doesn’t mean these distinctions aren’t important. Now, it’s time to treat them as such–in our workplaces, in our content, and in our lives.
So, this Women’s History Month and beyond, let’s celebrate all women.
Isabella Sturgis, Graduate Intern
Mariam Shahab, VP, Director of Digital Strategy
Michael Lynch, Senior Healthcare & Multicultural Associate
JD Caudill, Manager, Digital
Patrick Pfohl, Senior Manager