When is a spokesman a woman? Why using names would end gender confusion

TV government spokeman.

TV government spokeman.

Fireman, policeman, foreman, linesman…all job titles that have slowly and rightly been consigned to the scrapheap, replaced with gender-neutral alternatives like firefighter, police officer, team leader, referee’s assistant.

Yet a handful of news publishers (and some organisations providing them with information) continue to hang on to the term ‘spokesman’  as a catch-all term for someone speaking on behalf of an organisation. It’s there in some of the style guides, both national and local.

From the Telegraph style guide:

spokesman: not spokeswoman, spokesperson. Also, foreman as in foreman of the jury.

The same guide also points out that the term chairman should be used “even when she is a woman. Chair, except in direct quotes, means a piece of furniture.”

The Reuters guide says spokesman or spokeswoman can be used but not spokesperson, adding:

“If the sex of the person is not known, use representative.”

Before the etymologists heap oppobrium on me, I am aware that the word ‘spokesman’  is defined as ‘a man or person speaking on behalf of an organisation or others’. It originated in the 1510s, initially meaning ‘interpreter’. It was formed from spoke, the past tense of speak, plus man (meaning either man the gender or as an all-encompassing word for all humans).

In other words, I accept that the word’s origins may have been gender neutral.

But let’s be honest – if I say spokesman, the image you conjure up is that of a man. And therein lies the rub.


More women than men work in the PR and marketing professions and regularly speak on behalf of their business, organisation or charity. Why should they suffer the ignominy of being referenced always as a ‘man?

What’s the alternative? Well, representative would, as Reuters recognise, do the trick. After all, that’s precisely what press officers are doing – representing the general or specific view of the heads of an organisation.

But even better would be for organisations, businesses and charities that supply comments and press releases to the media to stop issuing comments without attached names.

Add a name to a comment and it immediately humanises it, giving it a voice. It also aids transparency.

Issued comments are almost always signed off by someone in a position of higher authority than the issuer – so use their name and title instead of the ubiquitous spokesman.

Then there would be no excuse for parts of the media to continue to use spokesman as their default option.

  • Images from cartoonstock.com and aspokesman.com





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