From Murderess To Aviatrix: A Dictionary of Gendered Professions
More accurately: a thesaurus of gender-neutral job titles.
Scroll all the way down for the actual word list.
I was eight or nine and attending an acting class. It was dominated by older boys and girls, so there were very few people around my age. We were preparing for a play and the director was giving us notes post-full run. He said something along the lines of “you’re all great actors”. At that point, I piped up. “And actresses!” The older kids turned and looked accusingly at me. The director stared blankly, before stopping his pep talk to assure me that “actors” referred to both male and female performers. The older kids rolled their eyes. I could see it written on their faces: what a halfwit.
I was mortified. At eight, I knew that the word was used in a gender neutral way all the time. I hadn’t been trying to correct my teacher’s diction. I’d only been trying to point out that the girls deserved recognition too. And no matter how noble my intentions, I was too young to recognise their validity. I was embarrassed. I could not forget the incident, which is why, ten years later, I’m still able to pull it from my memory and write vividly about it.
Through those ten years, I’ve been exposed to readings critiquing the assumption that masculinity is the default (thank goodness for feminist writers). We see it in fashion: Vogue will laud Valentino for its daring new gender neutral line, but we’ll quickly realise that “gender neutral” just means “basic menswear in smaller sizes”. We see it in signs: how often is a caution pictogram depicted with a female stick figure? We see it in television and film: directors never have to justify casting a man as the protagonist, because their choice of gender is never questioned.
But today I want to go back to ten years ago, and talk about how we gender professional words. Words like actress versus actor, steward versus stewardess, waiter versus waitress. The prominence of feminine endings (-e, -ess) dates back to the 19th century. Lots of words received the feminine ending treatment, but not all of them survived. English words aren’t gendered anymore, so when the dative and genitive cases died out, so did lots of our gender specific words.
So what bothers me? It’s not entirely the fact that there is no male substitute for so many of these feminine words. It’s the fact that male substitutes for these words were never seen as necessary. Words that are gender neutral are assumed to be male. That’s why a man who waits tables will feel inclined to call himself a waiter, but certainly not a waitress unless he wishes to be associated with the female gender. Similarly, a woman who serves customers on an airplane will avoid calling herself an air steward, because the term is associated with men doing the same job. Arguably, this doesn’t happen with all job titles. I’ve heard both male and female performers call themselves actors (although I have yet to meet a male performer who calls himself an actress).
We are so hellbent on gendering jobs and people that we even add genders to jobs that don’t need to be gendered in the first place. We call a female nurse a nurse, but we’ll call a male nurse a male nurse. If it’s a man presiding over a trial, he’s a judge. If it’s a woman, she’s too often referred to as a female judge. Girl models get called models. Boy models get called male models. When men play basketball, it’s basketball. When women play basketball, it’s women’s basketball.
Is there a trend? Most definitely. We like to slot in a gender in jobs that we think are reserved for a specific gender. We associate femininity with empathy and care, so if a man wants to work in a field like nursing that requires that kind of emotional capacity, we immediately try to detach him from the other nurses. We call him a male nurse to bring attention to the fact that we don’t think he’s biologically as capable as his female peers. We call him a male nurse to carve out a space for him in a female dominated field. Not because we care for him and want to give him agency, but because we just don’t think he belongs in a feminine occupation. We associate masculinity with rationality. So when a woman is a judge — which requires rationality in bucketfuls — we feel the need to excuse her for her gender. We go, “sorry, she might not be as rational as the men in this line of work”. We think masculinity and athleticism go hand in hand, so it’s easy to see why we don’t think women are playing real basketball. And we uphold the mythical, unattainable perfect woman, so a man who strives to that level of perfection professionally needs to be set in a different category. One that doesn’t involve the inherently feminine aspects of beauty.
Even the most liberal of us fall into the trap of gendering professions. It’s a perplexing problem because it implies some sort of internalised need to put people in boxes. Yeah sure, that’s no secret. But where do we go from here?
Arguably, the best route is the fight for gender neutral nouns. Waiter should refer to anyone on the gender spectrum who waits tables. Similar rules should apply for steward, and actor. Job titles that include the words male/female/women’s/men’s should drop those pronouns. Not just because we don’t want to proliferate the idea that one gender is inherently better at some things than the other, but because we want to acknowledge the spectrum of genders that exist apart from the binary. When we create boxes for male and female genders, we exclude and erase people who don’t fit (or don’t want to fit) into either. It’s a struggle for them to figure out which gendered job title to adopt, and it’s made worse if they have to explain their choice as a result of us being so stuck in our idea of gender.
So when I spoke up asking for actresses to be recognised too, was I wrong? The short answer is yes. The long answer…
Based on what I’ve discussed thus far, it seems like I was fighting a battle that was hardly even there. The teacher’s choice of diction was inclusive. Had there been any non binary kids in the cast, they probably wouldn’t have felt excluded from the pep talk. So why did I feel like I had been? I think it goes back to the fact that from birth, we are inundated with speech that reinforces “male=neutral”. What I was uncomfortable with wasn’t the gender neutral nature of the term, but the exclusionary nature of gendered language. As a girl, I felt left out of a word that had been largely claimed by men. As a girl, I felt I couldn’t access a neutral word, because what was neutral, belonged to the masculine. I wanted in on a neutral space, but didn’t know how to get permission. So the next best thing for me was to try to be verbally acknowledged separately. When that didn’t happen, I felt embarrassed I had even tried to squeeze my way in. Yes, I was told that girls were actors too. But I still felt subsumed under masculinity. I still felt subordinate.
And honestly, that’s why we need gender neutral language. If I hadn’t been taught to steer clear of what I perceived to be male dominated, if I hadn’t been taught to identify stringently with femininity, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have felt offense at the use of the word “actor”. My mind was built around a binary. What was not female was male, and what was not male was female.
Our linguistics need to stop reinforcing that diremption. If we get rid of dichotomous language, we’ll get rid of some of our internalised sexism as well. We’ll start to ignore some of the previously rampant stereotypes surrounding certain lines of work. If our language is inclusive, we’ll be inclusive too.
As a start, here’s a list of some gendered professions and gender neutral synonyms we can use instead.
Actress and Actor: Actor
Airwoman and Airman: Aviator, Pilot
Anchorwoman and Anchorman: Anchor
Authoress and Author: Author
Ballerina and Ballerino: Principle Dancer
Barmaid and Barman: Bartender
Boatwoman and Boatman: Bargee
Brewmaster: Chief Brewer, Head Brewer
Businesswoman and Businessman: Businessperson
Chairwoman and Chairman: Chairperson
Chambermaid: Caretaker, Cleaning Staff, Housekeeper
Choirmistress and Choirmaster: Cantor
Cleaning lady: Cleaning Staff, Janitor
Clergywoman and Clergyman: Cleric, Clergy, Minister, Pastor
Comedienne and Comedian: Comedian
Congressman: Congressperson, Member of Congress
Conman: Crook, Fraud, Imposter, Scam Artist
Cowgirl and Cowboy: Cowhand
Deliveryman: Courier, Delivery Person
Doorman: Door Attendant, Doorkeeper
Draughtswoman and Draughtsman: Draughtsperson
Executrix and Executioner: Executioner
Flight Steward and Flight Stewardess: Cabin Staff, Flight Attendant
Forewoman and Foreman: Manager, Supervisor, Superintendent
Handyman: DIY Expert, Factotum, Fixer, Odd-jobber, Maintenance Person
Hostess and Host: Host
Housewife and Househusband: Homemaker
Landlady and Landlord: Publican
Masseuse and Masseur: Massage Therapist
Policewoman and Policeman: Police Officer
Priestess and Priest: Priest
Salesgirl and Salesman: Salesperson, Sales Assistant
Seamstress and Tailor: Sewer, Needleworker, Tailor
Sportswoman and Sportsman: Athlete, Sportsperson
Stuntwoman and Stuntman: Stuntperson
Waitress and Waiter: Waiter, Server
Watchwoman and Watchman: Security Guard, Security Warden