The words we choose matter

1 Apr 2022

We use language as a tool to communicate with one another. The words we choose play an important part in this, and,  in many ways, define our culture and determine our capacity to work as a team where everyone feels included and valued.

I sometimes struggle with language. I often get it wrong. Finding the right word to convey my intended meaning is at times a challenge. My biggest fear is choosing the wrong word or phrase and causing offense. This self-doubt can lead me to stumble in my words. I expect others experience the same and perhaps can empathise in how embarrassing this can be. 

Take ‘women’ and ‘female’. Which is correct in which circumstance?  I sent an email to Dr Dee Gibbon, UQ’s Director of Organisational Culture and Capacity, for some advice.  Here’s her reply:

“Woman is the correct and most inclusive noun for an adult person who identifies as a woman.   Female is both an adjective that modifies a noun; e.g. female dog, female organs etc.  ‘Female’ and ‘male’ are also used with reference to biological sex, whereas ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are socially constructed.   

“It is incorrect to use the term ‘female’ as a noun; e.g. The females should go into that room or we are recruiting more females … in these cases, it should be women or woman.  It may also be offensive to some people to say ‘female pilots’, ‘female scientists’ because this implies biology rather than identity. 

“I hope that makes sense (same goes for men/male)”

Make sense to me.

Dee further referred me to UQ's inclusive language guide. It’s an excellent resource, well worth a look. Among other things, it provides useful principles for inclusive language across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, gender, culture, disability, sexuality and age. It also gives advice on language and practices to avoid.

Professor Ross McAree

Chair, EAIT Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee