Whether as a car enthusiast, as a professional journalist, or as someone who merely wishes to pass an air of professionalism, it’s extremely important to be able to address and treat people with respect and dignity. The automotive world is still seem by many as a “boys’ club” with a number of stereotypes or behaviors that reinforce a negative view or glass ceiling towards women’s participation. On OppositeLock, for example, we try to address some of these more negative behaviors, including when people act inappropriately towards women (even when responding to written articles and not the women in question themselves).
There is a certain level of professionalism, respect and outreach of dignity when responding or writing as an automotive journalist towards women as well, whether about general sex/gender issues related to automotive culture or about or to specific individuals or to the reader in general regardless of sex or gender. What follows is a matter of personal opinion and a certain heirarchy of conduct that I think is important, but is nonetheless arbitrary; while it’s an arbitrary standard I certainly can’t enforce, I like to think it remains a reliable “rule of thumb” to follow. It is also important to keep in mind that there is an important distinction between fact and fiction (or even “creative nonfiction”) - when writing a narrative (i.e., a story in the classic entertainment sense we typically think of) I still like to think that the rule should be “anything goes” - as long as the narrative justifies it. Word choice by characters (or a disembodied third-person narrator), or behaviors for better or worse, reflect a certain intent in world-building or storytelling that become an integral part of how that story is told. But for the purposes of this specific essay we’ll strictly concern ourselves with actual journalism and editorialism as classifically thought of - facts and opinion meant to inform or communicate centered around a specific technical, political or social fact or concept with no narrative beyond what is necessary to communicate that fact (i.e., the bare essence of journalism).
In which case, I believe that these guidelines will ensure your article or editorial will be able to uphold the respect and professionalism necessary to be taken seriously. A further point of clarification: by “addressing” I’m specifically referring to noun/pronoun usage in your writing as opposed to how to actually address a female interviewee. You’re on your own on that, but I’d like to think common sense should be able to carry the day in that regards.
“Woman” (or “Female”) vs. “Girl”
I’ve perhaps encountered no word that is such a greater pet peeve for many readers than “girl.” This is how Merriam -Webster defines the word:
Simple Definition of girl
- : a female child
- : a young woman
- : a usually young woman from a specified kind of place
Full Definition of girl
The common theme is that a “girl” is in reference to a woman who is very young (typically from birth to 18 years of age or commonly up to about 22 years of age) but typically of the age prior to when a person is expected to be gainfully employed as a professional. Regardless, the term is considered no longer applicable past a certain age (let’s just say about 23 or 24) as a means or sign of respect. The contention and offense concerns the implication that a woman is too inexperienced or otherwise shown dismissal as a capable adult or professional if she’s referred to as a “girl.” To refer to a woman as a “girl” may be considered appropriate as a term of endearment to a specific individual with a previous rapport and understanding of its acceptance, but it is not appropriate for use when addressing a specific or non-specific individual in a professional journalistic or editorial piece (unless that person happens to be a female teen-aged or younger - and even then, it might be appropriate to exercise some discretion and choose a more respectful description).
The more appropriate word choice would be to refer to the individual as a “woman” - or as “female” which carries further neutral and “baggage-less” connotation. For example, choosing to refer to a prominent female racing driver as a “female driver” as opposed to referring to her as a “girl.”
“His or Her” vs. “His/Her” vs. “His (or Her)“
The differences between the word choice when using multiple pronouns at once is more subtle, but the subtlety in those differences can be powerful. For the most part, there is no real distinction between “his or her” and “his/her” (with a forward-slash) and the two can be used interchangably. My personal preference is “his/her” because it appears somewhat cleaner and more streamlined both in print and when read aloud (pronounced simply as “his-her” without explicit acknowledgement of the separation).
However, there is a difference between “his or her”/“his/her” and “his (or her)“ (with parentheses). Understanding this difference can add additional emphasis to your article, or subtly and accidentallly reveal your own ignorance. The addition of parentheses around “her” (or any word or phrase) draws attention and calls to a fact a certain exception or specialness conveyed around that word or phrase. When addressing sex or gender, there is an appropriate time and an inappropriate time when this applies.
An example of when this would be appropriate is this article about female Kurdish fighters in Northern Iraqi provinces that are besieged by militant forces. This is a legitimately special case concerning women in a role where they are not usually associated with, particularly in a culture not typically associated with this role, where women are being forced through circumstances of self-preservation into roles regardless of how they personally feel about war or warfare (i.e., women who are both naturally inclined to take up arms as well as women who may be extremely pacifist under more civil circumstances) and are able to demonstrate effectiveness and heroism in these roles. In this circumstance, referring to a theoretical Kurdish fighter as “him (or her)” emphasizes how these female Kurdish fighters are a unique phenomenon in this particular battle. The gender distinction is an important and integral part of the narrative of this story.
An inappropriate useage of the parentheses concerns the profiling or operation of a weapons system (or other system) such as a Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II (or to bring it back to an Oppo example, a car like a 2016 Ford Fusion with Microsoft SYNC). Such an example might look like “the pilot/driver may be able to select his (or her) options through the touch screen, which represents an advancement over previous generations.” The parentheses around “(or her)“ draws special attention - but in this case, an inappropriate manner. As with the female Kurdish fighters, it’s drawing attention to how unique, special or circumstantial a female pilot or driver may be - except in most Western societies a female pilot and especially a female driver are by no means considered unique, special, or circumstantial, particularly when being able to drive is considered a necessity for functioning as an adult person. Such draw to attention may be interpreted as insulting, in much the same way how women driving in certain less-than-democratic countries is considered special and circumstantial.
When Possible, Be Gender-Neutral
The best way to address women in a journalistic or editorial piece is to simply not address them at all - and by the same token, avoid addressing men or any sex or gender-specific makers period. To continue the above example, instead of “the pilot/driver may be able to select his or her options through the touch screen,” use “the pilot/driver may be able to select options through the touch screen.” In other cases, using role specific identification instead of person or gender/sex specific descriptors - “the pilot,” “the driver,” “the soldier,” “the operator” etc. - communicates the idea without bringing to attention gender or sex. In such pieces the gender or sex of an unnamed theoretical person is not necessary as that is not the focus - the focus is on a piece of technology or machinery that anybody can operate, or concerning a role where women filling that role is no longer considered exceptional (or at least drawing attention to it distracts from the focus of the piece).