Professor Emerit (Not a Typo)

It is Time to Reject Gendered Titles for Retired Faculty

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

Professor Emerit of Psychology, University of Oregon
Founder and President, Center for Institutional Courage




In the News:

Linked Motions Passed by the University of Oregon Senate


Freyd (2021) Commentary Excerpt

“[I]t’s like calling me a professorette now” – these words came to me in an email from esteemed gender scholar Janet Shibley Hyde on the problem with the title “Professor Emerita” (Hyde, 2021, personal correspondence).   I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, upon my retirement on 15 March 2021 from my position as Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, I had already adopted the title “Professor Emerit” for myself – a title that I chose as not gendered and easily rendered consistent with English grammar (one professor emerit, two professor emerits).   I intend Professor Emerit to be no more associated with gender than the title Professor.

It is telling that for many of us in the professoriate, myself included, when we are granted “Emeritus Status” it is with exactly that language.  In other words, the word “emeritus” is a technical one at the University of Oregon and many other universities and is not specific to the gender of the individual provided with the title.   However, although Professor Emeritus is the technical status for selected retired faculty, in common practice men are referred to with that same title but women are more frequently referred to as Professor Emerita. 

The titles Professor Emeritus and Professor Emerita are used to communicate professional status and an ongoing relationship with the university.  The titles mean that the individual was, in the past, a (presumably tenured) professor and continues to have certain rights and responsibilities at the institution granting the new title.  However, in contrast to the title Professor, the titles Professor Emeritus and Professor Emerita are used in explicitly gendered ways.  Why should my retirement suddenly demand a gendered title akin to “stewardess” (rather than “flight attendant”) or “policewoman” (rather than “police officer”).

There are at least two somewhat separate problems with the standard gendered terminology.

The Gender Intrusion Problem

One problem with Emeritus/Emerita relates to the importation of gender into a professional title in which the job itself is not based on gender -- or at least it should not be.  The problem is that in our current world importing gender also imports status. The common usage makes gender salient in situations where it need not be made salient. Women are very often devalued, including in academia, and making gender salient is likely to exact a status cost for women (see for instance, Ridgeway & Correll, 2004) and cognitive cost for women (see for instance, Steele, 1997.) I also note that employers sometimes try to subvert equal pay and other gender discrimination laws by claiming people of different genders are doing different jobs. Let’s not make that easier for them by importing gender into the titles of professors upon retirement and thus implying that there is a difference in jobs.

The Binary Categorization Problem

The second problem with Emeritus/Emerita is that they force a binary distinction that may be particularly oppressive to some individuals.  The forced choice gender categories of male and female that are so often imposed on individuals erases the complexity, nuance, and fluidity of gender in real life.  Pushing people into boxes that erase their own individuality can be suffocating and damaging to the individuals and it can reinforce gender inequities at a societal level (see Bem, 1996).

Our stereotypes, laws, and beliefs often implicitly conceptualize human gender as either a single spectrum anchored by masculine and feminine or simply as two ends of one dimension (as captured in the phrase “opposite sex”).  However, Bem (1974) demonstrated nearly half a century ago that one dimension does not fit the data. Bem (1974) reported that the dimensions of masculinity and femininity captured by identification with stereotypical personality attributes (such as good leadership ability, nurturing, strong, empathic) are independent, both logically and empirically.
Bem 1974
Independent dimensions of gender attributes (figured based on Bem, 1974)

From the figure above (plotting masculinity and femininity as orthogonal dimensions), it is apparent that the choices of emeritus, emerita, and emeritum fail to work for those who understand themselves as largely androgenous.  (I note too that the graph above is also overly simplified. Masculinity and femininity are themselves the products of multiple dimensions of variation.  Furthermore, gender is arguably not just a thing one has but also a thing one does.) Personally, I do not want to be boxed into any gender category but especially one that does not align with my experience in the world. 

The term emerit avoids both the gender importation problem and the binary categorization problem.  Furthermore, it is consistent with widespread calls for avoiding gendered language in scholarship.  Nonetheless, I suspect that getting equally widespread adoption of the term within the academy will require overcoming some inertia and some resistance.  I have been discussing the term emerit for some time and have had the opportunity to ponder some frequently asked questions. 

Why not Retired? Professors designated as having the Emeritus/Emerita/Emerit status are retired from the university providing that status. However not all retired faculty have Emeritus/Emerita/Emerit status. As mentioned above, the Emerit- titles are used to communicate formal professional status and an ongoing relationship with the university. The titles mean that the individual was, in the past, a (presumably tenured) professor and continues to have certain rights and responsibilities at the institution granting the new title. 

Why not Professor Emeritus?  Although some advocate that a way around the gendered language is to use Professor Emeritus for any gender, that term currently carries gendered meaning.  To the extent emeritus can be used to mean either just men or both men and women, it is what is known as a marked term; other similar examples (many of which people have recently moved away from) include chairman, alumnus, fireman, stewardess, and even just “man” to mean human.  Research indicates marked gender terms can be disadvantageous to girls and women (e.g.: McConnell & Fazio, 1996).

Why not Professor Emeritum?  Neuter gender (such as emeritum) in Latin means neither masculine nor feminine, which is different from not actively denoting a gender by avoiding unnecessary grammatical gender.  Personally, I would not want the neuter term for myself because I am not neither masculine nor feminine; I am some combination of both.

Why not Professor Emeritx?  Professor Emeritx addresses one of the two problems mentioned above and discussed in more detail below; it corrects the binary categorization problem. However, it is not as effective at correcting the gender importation problem as the "x" inherently refers back to gender. While it might be valuable to use x when acknowledging the existence of intersectional identities in which gender matters, the professional title of professor is not or should not be one of those identities. In addition, as a usage matter, emeritx currently seems to be primarily used by others as a plural (as an alternative to the more commonly used emeriti), leaving it unclear what the singular version of the term should be. Emerit is easy to use with English grammar. One emerit; two or more emerits.

Why not Professor Emeriti?  There have been numerous suggestions for non-gendered terms for retired professors including Professor Emeriti.  In Latin emeriti is the masculine plural.  Emeriti is similarly used often in the contemporary USA in the plural form to refer to individuals otherwise categories as either Emeritus or Emerita.  In that way it is like using the term men to refer to a mixed-gender group of people. 

But is Professor Emerit grammatical?  Does that matter?  I appreciate correct grammar and I too sometimes cringe at what I perceive to be a grammatical error.  Yet I also know that English language is a shared and constantly evolving system and there will always be cringe-worthy moments in response to language change. We borrow words from other languages and over time make them our own.  English does not have grammatical gender in the sense that Latin has it and most of our borrowed Latin is used with English rules (as in professor and professors).  At the same time, words matter.

Language can do political and cultural work; language can and does sometimes play a role in the maintenance of an oppressive status quo.  Alternatively, language can be liberatory.  While grammatical consistency and correctness are generally valuable for communicative precision, comfort, and efficiency, sometimes there are even more important values which may require language to change – values such as equity and liberation from oppression.  Just as professor can be and is used with English grammar rules (such as using professors for the plural) so too can emerit be used with English grammar rules (using emerits for the plural).  This sort of transformation is occurring in our contemporary culture with the increasingly frequent use of alum/alums rather than the Latin grammar (and gendered) versions for those terms.

There is another point one could make about grammar in this case if one wanted to get really picky.  The word professor is originally from Latin and now used in English.  In Latin the term professor was grammatically masculine. So, if for some reason we need to use Latin rules – which we do not -- one could argue that Professor Emerita is grammatically incorrect.  It would perhaps need to be Professrix Emerita to be correct in Latin.

For the adjective form I will use emerit as in “Chris is an emerit professor.”  For the noun form I will refer to one emerit and two or more emerits.  This is parallel to the increasingly common usage for referring to graduates of an educational institution –one alum and two or more alums.   

A Call to Male Professors on the Verge of Retiring

Women faculty from around the country have written to me to thank me for posting a webpage about my decision to use the title Professor Emerit.  Several women have included the information that they will be adopting the title themselves. These statements of solidarity mean a lot to me.  At the same time I note that as of this writing very few men have written to me regarding the topic.  Clearly men who use the title Emeritus benefit from the consistency and the status.

I also know that only when men start to use the title Professor Emerit will I feel my job is done.   A man volunteering to use the non-gendered title - that would be a courageous act of allyship.   I do ask for it from men who are on the verge of retiring.  An already retired man who elects to switch to the nongendered title would surely lead by example.  I think some day it will happen that a man shows such courage.



Bem, S.L. (1974) The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 155-162. doi:10.1037/h0036215.

Bem, S.L. (1994) The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McConnell A.R. & Fazio R.H. (1996) Women as Men and People: Effects of Gender-Marked Language. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1004-1013. doi: 10.1177/01461672962210003

Ridgeway C. L. & Correll S. J. (2004). Unpacking the gender system: a theoretical perspective on gender beliefs and social relations. Gender &. Society, 18, 510–531. doi: 10.1177/0891243204265269

Steele, C.M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance, American Psychologist, 52, 613-629. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.52.6.613


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Copyright Jennifer J. Freyd.