Use of Language: Race is to Ethnicity as Sex is to Gender

The CLAHRC WM Director has often puzzled over the use of “gender” vs. “sex”, and “ethnic group” vs. “race” in scientific writing. They are not synonyms; gender and ethnicity are social constructs, while and sex and race are biological. The former are not “polite” terms for the latter. Philip Steer, Emeritus Editor of an exceptionally lively speciality journal BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, has written a sure-footed article on this topic.[1] Agreeing that race is the appropriate term to describe groups with a similar place of origin, irrespective of culture, he recommends the National Library of Medicine MeSH groupings. Five continental groupings (African, American, Asian, European, and Oceanic) are broken down by sub-region – for example, European into ‘White European’ and ‘Mediterranean’. Gone is the term Caucasian, which was used to describe broader origins than just the Caucasus area and which, the CLAHRC WM Director learned, has eugenic overtones.

The article makes some other interesting points. Africa has the greatest human genetic diversity among the continents, accounting for as much as 80% of all human genetic variation. This is because of the bottleneck created by the exodus from Africa of a relatively small group of Homo sapiens about 70,000 years ago. These migrants mated with Neanderthals and spread out to colonise the rest of the globe. All of this is of interest to CLAHRC Africa, which has an interest in preventing hypertension and stroke. Salt is the prime causal suspect and there is evidence that some African people may be especially prone to salt-induced hypertension as a result of a widespread allele. Since intake of salt has increased rapidly over the past century we are developing protocols to identify the main source of salt in the diet. In due course we will design an intervention to tackle this. We are working closely with colleagues in the African Population Health Research Center (APHRC) and Malawi on this project.

However, the whole question of race will become progressively less important in science and medicine in the future for two reasons. First, gene sequencing will increasingly enable scientists and doctors to hypothecate genetic variation at the individual level, rather than the level of the group/race.[2] [3] The arrival of personalised medicine will reduce the importance of race and it has always been the case that there is far more variation within, than between races. Second, mating across racial boundaries will increasingly dilute correlation between race and genetic configuration and vitiate the effects of Homo sapiens great migration out of Africa.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Steer P. Race and Ethnicity in Biomedical Publications. BJOG. 2015: 122(4): 464-7.
  2. Burchard EG, Ziv E, Coyle N, et al. The Importance of Race and Ethnic Background in Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice. New Engl J Med. 2003; 348: 1170-5.
  3. Jeffers C. The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s “The Conservation of Races”. Ethics. 2013; 123(3): 403-26.

3 thoughts on “Use of Language: Race is to Ethnicity as Sex is to Gender”

  1. I’ve always thought that gender is what you are – male/femaie and sex is what you do. And no they are not interchangeable. When I review docs I revise accordingly – seems I am wrong?!

  2. Richard, I don’t think Fowler /Butterfield (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English usage 2015 isbn 978-0-19-966135-0 OUP); would agree with Steer on use of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’ (page 339) It is not for scientists – UK or USA – to change the use of words unless perhaps for specific reasons, when it is preferable to invent a new word. Current misuses include multiple for several; amount for number (eg of peopl) We should use English English to publish in UK journals; and American English (words and grammar) if we want to publish in the States. Common incongruities are use of nouns as verbs; multiple (correct use here) use of adjectives (should be 1 at most 2). And American spellings ( z instead of s; but see p 442; 900). The golden rule is to write so that someone whose mother tongue is not English can understand. I tell young scientists the same – papers and a PhD thesis with which I am helping. I shall buy my Italian teacher a copy of Fowler/Butterfield to help with her English -which already is excellent. Andrew

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