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I'm looking for a word to positively describe (flatter) a female leader (VP/CEO/...). The word should reflect her great ability, high status and incredible power, in a good manner.

One of the candidate words I have found is mistress. According to the dictionary, it means:

a woman who has power, authority, or ownership

However, it can also mean:

a woman other than his wife with whom a married man has a continuing sexual relationship

This meaning is clearly improper here.

headmistress looks safer, for which the dictionary only lists one definition:

a woman heading the staff of a private school

I'm not sure if this word can also be used for "a woman heading an enterprise".


My question is two-fold:

  1. About the words themselves:

    • Is it only possible from context if mistress means "a powerful woman" or "a female lover"?

    • Would headmistress ever be construed as "a head female lover (among all the lovers of a man)"?

    • What is the masculine counterpart of mistress? The closest I have found is master, which has the meaning of "a powerful man", but not "a male lover".

  2. Is mistress or headmistress a good word to use here? Are there any better choices?

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There are actually quite a few questions you're asking here.. let's start with the simplest:

As far as I know, the term headmistress is pretty much only used in the context of schools or boarding institutions. It would definitely sound strange (and possibly belittling) to use that term in a business situation.

The term mistress has traditionally been the female version of master, but due to the historically very different roles and views about men and women, the two terms really don't mean the same thing, unfortunately. As you noted, the term "mistress" does often have romantic connotations, and it has also traditionally been used in the context of sexual power-play / BDSM / etc, so I would generally recommend against using that term to describe somebody in a business setting. It has a lot of other baggage that comes with it which you're not going to be able to get away from.

In terms of words you might be able to use instead, Chris' suggestion of matriarch is a possibility. It definitely conveys most of the senses you want, and is not sexually-charged in any way, though it can sometimes leave the impression of "overbearing" as well, so that might not be quite what you want if you want something that you can be sure is always going to be considered positive (flattering).

In modern times, the (traditionally masculine) term master has actually become much more gender-neutral, and it is not uncommon to describe women as masters of their trade or master over an enterprise. In general, if you want to be flattering to a female member of the business world, it's probably a good idea to shy away from terms that are female-specific anyway. Even if you find one that has all the connotations you want, using a gender-based term by itself essentially reinforces the idea that somehow being a woman is significant (when it really shouldn't be. We're talking about capability, after all, which doesn't have anything to do with gender).

Most of the terms that have traditionally been used to describe men in positions of power can arguably be used equally for women too these days, and probably should be, and many terms like leader, magnate, mogul, and authority have always been pretty gender-neutral anyway, so these are some good possibilities as well.

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  • Depending on the workplace culture, using "mistress" to deliberately imply the sexual power play/BDSM meaning might be appropriate if it's done in a joking fashion. It wouldn't be terribly professional, though, regardless. – nick012000 Sep 8 at 3:52
  • Also, "matriarch" has connotations of a middle-aged or older mother or grandmother, and younger women might find it unflattering, especially if they care about their physical appearance. – nick012000 Sep 8 at 3:56
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Frame challenge

In more liberal cultures, it can be considered sexist to point out that a VP/CEO/etc. is female or to use gender-specific terms for women in the workplace. For instance, to say someone is a “good female CEO” could be taken as implying she’s only good compared to other women, not compared to men; if you mean that she is good compared to men as well, then she’s just a “good CEO”. After all, we don’t call someone a “good male CEO”. So, use whatever gender-neutral terms you would use for a man with the same qualities.

Some writers will go so far as to use the “singular they” to avoid using gendered pronouns, though that certainly isn’t universal.

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I would go in the opposite direction for flattering a CEO woman for two reasons:

  1. Only one word is most likely not enough.
  2. The word "mistress" has a chance, no matter how small, to be misunderstood - in an unpleasant way.

As an alternative, I would go with something with the following structure:

Not only you have [this qualit(i)es], but you also have [this quality].

Example:

You are not only a good manager, as seen in the company reports, but you also succeeded to bring a mind-state of well being into the company. The employees are much happier to come to work since you took the chair.


However, you must always be careful. If she is there, she might actually be smart. And if she loathes being kissed up, you are better off keeping silent.

Make sure that whatever you say, is actually true. Otherwise, you just risk lighting a good fire under you.

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You might have trouble finding a word to describe that, as historically, women were never (usually) in such positions, and the reason they are in today's world is due to largely to the idea of gender equality (so a gender-specific word might therefore be unlikely). As a corollary to that, any gender-specific word you do find may actually prove to undermine the message you are trying to convey.

That being said, one word that comes to mind is "matriarch", or "matriarchal", traditionally used to describe a woman's power and status as the maternal head of the family and household, which may transfer in a qualitative sense.

Or you could always just describe her in a gender-neutral way, i.e. "talented", "powerful", "a genius", "influential", etc.

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A "titan of industry" or "~czar" comes to mind. They are well-used by the media and are rather gender-neutral. They may be a little too grandiose for what you're looking for, however.

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