For me, it feels slightly clumsy to say I'm a Research Fellow without actually being a fellow (defined as a male person). Nevertheless, it's unsurprising to have female research fellows at universities.

Q: Is Research Fellow a gender-neutral term?

With this question, I'm seeking a way to understand why no-one seems to mind using "research fellow" to describe non-males. Perhaps there's some etymology to the term that would clarify things.

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    The answers give etymology but I'd also like to point out that "fellow" is widely perceived as gender-neutral in academia. At least, I've never heard anyone use or even suggest an alternative term for fellows of learned societies, research fellowships or the fellows [academic staff] of Oxbridge colleges. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 10:30
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    Also the royal society seems to use fellow for women, too. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 11:49
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    Yep, OED describes it as "one who shares with another in possession, official dignity, or in the performance of any work". It brings to mind a certain common speech starter by US Presidents, "My fellow Americans..."
    – TylerH
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 18:30
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    "Fellow" is also gender-neutral in medicine: Fellowship
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 13:24
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    Indeed. Makes a person wonder... sigh. But, yes, operationally, in the two academic milieus I've seen close up and consistently, mathematics and medicine, "fellow" gives no hint of gender, although in both cases "smart money" figures its more likely that a fellow be a male than female, for the usual (dubious) reasons. So the reality is (surprisingly...) unbiased, but that is different than what people may think when they look at it, indeed. Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 23:06

4 Answers 4


Yes, in your reference, the third definition is the one being used, rather than the first:

a member of a group of people who have shared interests, activities, etc.

Of course, we should look to how the word is actually used rather than solely to its dictionary definition, but in this case I think that actually makes the argument even stronger, since academics use the neutral form quite a lot and nobody else (at least in my part of the world) seems to care for the word.

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    Actually, I think it is definition 6 or possibly 5 that is being used. And most of the senses listed are not gender specific.
    – Kimball
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 8:03

Yes, "research fellow" is a gender neutral term, just as Simone de Beauvoir can be called a "fellow traveler".

The word "fellow" derives from the Old English feolaga which means roughly "one who shares something" and is etymologically not gendered; you are being misled by the more recent colloquial usage (less than 600 years old) to mean male person. But the meaning here, which is specific to the academic context, developed separately (via the notion that the fellows of a college share in its revenues). You can find more details at the wonderful reference, the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Indeed, as you suspect, etymologically it is not gender specific. If you think about the usages, fellow typically just carries a connotation of "going along with" or "having in common with." See this page for more on the etymology. The wikitionary entry also has usage notes stating fellow is not typically used in the sense of "a man" in North America.

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    Even in British English, where fellow is used to mean man, in an academic context I don't think anyone would consider it to be a gendered term.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 10:02

The use of the term "fellow" suffers from ambiguity because it has two different meanings, depending upon its intended part of speech. To say a "fellow academician" is to use the word as an adjective whereby it means "belonging to the same class or group; united by the same occupation, interests, etc.; being in the same condition: fellow students; fellow sufferers." ~ dictionary.com But using "fellow" as a noun as in "That fellow standing in line" is unambiguously to refer to a male-coded human being. Thus to say a "Research Fellow" is clearly to use the term "fellow" to indicate a type of research position and, thus, to use it as an adjective: therefore it carries no gender implication. I have attempted to find an alternative adjective with the same meaning, but have been unable find one that works well in English.

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    I don't follow your answer. In "an assistant professor." "professor" is a noun or an adjective?
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 3:06

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