Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Top scientist or top female scientist?

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How would you describe a neuroscientist and expert in the neurochemistry of the human brain who is Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford and has led one of the country’s most prestigious scientific bodies, the Royal Institution, for the past decade? How about ‘a top scientist’? Fair enough? I’d say so. Here’s how the Guardian describes this scientist in a heading on its online front page:

‘Top female scientist faces role cut’

If Baroness Susan Greenfield had been a man, would the headline have read:

‘Top male scientist faces role cut’?

I don’t think so.

‘Female’ as used here is a gratuitous modifier that serves to undermine both the scientist being described and women in general. The unspoken suggestion, whether intended or not,  is that she’s the cream of the female scientific crop, but probably doesn’t stand a chance when competing against her male counterparts.

Read a no-nonsense guide to politically correct writing



3 Responses

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  1. This subject matter is just becoming more and more tedious. Having worked closely with “top female scientists” at CERN, Geneva it just doesn’t seem possible that gender comes into the equation in the 21st century. Why does it seem acceptable when it would be totally out of the question to alert the reader to the colour of the skin of “top scientist”? It may have been done years ago, but has been deemed outrageous – as should the gender relevance.

    Lizi B

    11/12/2009 at 11:12 am

  2. Yes — it is unbelievable that this type of unthinking sexist writing should get to see the light of day on a regular basis — and in the Guardian too, just to add insult to injury.

    Thanks for your perceptive (as ever) comments.


    11/12/2009 at 11:22 am

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