The Term ‘Female’ Can Be Dehumanizing, Boston University Medical School Says

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Should people use the word “female” to describe women?

The Boston University School of Medicine advises its students and faculty against it, saying and the term can be “dehumanizing.”

Since October 2021, the school has used what it calls the Glossary for Culture Transformation. The guide contains 107 words and phrases that it defines to give people a better understanding of what terms to use. In some instances, it recommends certain words while explaining why the selected word or phrase is a better fit than a similar term.

One of the changes that Boston University’s School of Medicine wants people to make to their vocabularies is dropping the term “female” when describing women.  

Here is what the guide says:


Consider using “woman/women” rather than “female/females” as a noun. Female is an adjective, descriptive of animals. When female is used as a noun, it can reduce someone to their ability to reproduce and can be dehumanizing. It is also not inclusive of trans-women. The similar rule applies to male (adjective) vs. man (noun). E.g. male doctors (used correctly as an adjective) vs. doctors who are men (used correctly as a noun).


The guide says that it exists to improve equity in people’s use of the English language. Here is the description offered under “purpose”:


Establishing shared language is foundational to creating common understanding; it expands our awareness of the world beyond our individual identities and experiences. It is important to define terms that are not well understood and have the potential for causing harm. Shared language holds us accountable to the values of justice, equity, and belonging. It facilitates collective action toward our vision of creating and sustaining a culture across all schools on BU’s Medical Campus, Boston Medical Center (BMC), Boston University Medical Group (BUMG), and where all students, trainees, faculty, and staff thrive, and their success and wellbeing are not determined by their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs, and other dimensions of identity

Language shapes our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Use of this Glossary will guide dialogue, challenge assumptions, inform goals and strategies, and shift the narrative to address root drivers of inequities and prioritize structurally marginalized populations. Our words, along with policies and structures, can foster an environment where justice, equity, and belonging are reflected in our everyday practice.


The guide is used by Boston University’s Office of Equity, Vitality, and Inclusion; the Boston Medical Center; Boston University School of Medicine; and Boston University Medical Group.

Dropping the term “female” one of a few changes the school wants people to make to their language use to avoid dehumanizing people.

Another term the school wants people to rid from their vocabulary is “illegal immigrant.” Instead, the school wants people to use the term “undocumented” in lieu of “illegal.”

“When someone enters the US without papers, referring to those people as undocumented immigrants, rather than illegal immigrants, promotes their humanity,” the guide says.

Additionally, the Boston University School of Medicine says that “slave” is not an appropriate term. It wants people to use “enslaved person” instead.

Here is what the guide says of those terms:


A newer term for slave which is beginning to gain traction in written works; aims to promote the humanity of those who were enslaved by 1) explicitly reminding us that it is not an inherent state of being 2) directing our attention to the action that someone and something enslaved people. The rationale is that “to reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun … reproduce(s) the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amount(s) to a form of emancipation.”


A spokesman for the Boston University School of Medicine directed NewBostonPost to the Boston University Medical Group and Boston Medical Center for comment on the matter. The Boston University Medical Group and Boston Medical Center could not be reached for comment on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday this week.


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