Word Choice: Female or Women?

I read the news most mornings. I’m particularly interested in articles about business and education. I’ve seen this issue arise more and more frequently, so I’d like to set the record straight.

When do you use ‘female’ and when do you use ‘women’? Here’s the rule of thumb that I would keep in mind. There are a few exceptions (mostly in the field of science), but this rule should serve you well when writing about non-technical subject matter.

Female is an adjective.

Women is a noun.

If you’re describing someone/something, you’d use female. Examples:

  1. In Biology, I learned about the female anatomy.
  2. Mary Barra is the first female CEO of a major automaker.

If you’re talking about the subject/object of your sentence, use ‘women’ or ‘woman.’ Examples:

  1. Women find me incredibly attractive.
  2. That woman walks her dog at the same time every day.

Two notable exceptions:

  1. Science. In some cases, like certain research papers, you may use ‘male’ and ‘female’ as nouns. “Three females and one male participated in the experiment.”
  2. Animals. Animals are always male or female (or the appropriate term, such as ‘ram’ or ‘doe’). You wouldn’t say, “My dog is a woman.”

Let’s take a look at this screenshot from a Forbes article.


In this case, the title of the article is correct. “Female” is an adjective describing entrepreneurs. The second arrow also points to a correct phrase. “Women” is a noun. The third arrow, though, points to an incorrect phrase. As we noted in the title, “Female entrepreneurs” is the correct expression, not “women entrepreneurs.”

The grossest error one can make in writing is inconsistency.

Every word you write should be carefully considered. If you choose to use ‘women entrepreneurs,’ make sure you use it throughout your article. To switch back and forth indicates sloppy proofreading.

So, in summation:

Female is an adjective. Women/woman is a noun.

And if you’re going to make a mistake, be consistently wrong.

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