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Are you kidding me?

February 15, 2011

I tried to be nice.

I tried to be quiet.

I tried to keep this site a supportive, welcoming place where e-mentoring could be had for the price of a click.

But really.  REALLY?  When the long-awaited first images of Stardust’s encounter of Tempel 1 were released today, THIS is the headline NASA chose?

NASA Releases Images Of Man-Made Crater On Comet

MAN-Made?  What about the names LucyJessica, and Karen confused you?  Were none of the hundreds of scientists and engineers who worked on Deep Impact women?


You know better than this.

You know that language matters, and that women matter to the future of the space agency.

Or, at least, you did.

What happened?

Documents referenced: NASA press release 11-046 released at 8:39 p.m.; Deep Impact biosketches or interviews of Co-Investigators Lucy McFadden, Jessica Sunshine, and Karen Meech; NASA History Style Guide, which states “All references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific (e.g. human, piloted, un-piloted, robotic).”, and two broken links to the NASA Quest web site, which highlighted women at NASA.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 2:29 pm

    When I hear “man-made” in this context, I take of the word “man” to mean “human,” as I’m sure many people do, and don’t take it as a sexist remark at all. Maybe I am just not feminist enough? I think there are bigger issues to worry about regarding women in the sciences than this instance of word choice. Calling such a word choice sexist and offensive actually strikes me as an insult to the intelligence of women—the intent of the wording is obvious. It’s all about context.

  2. stepmumoftheyear permalink
    February 25, 2011 6:15 am

    I look forward to hearing about a “properly womanned flight”… since words don’t matter and everything, and “man” represents all of us.


    Not in a million years.

  3. julie permalink
    February 17, 2011 4:06 pm

    I too feel that a key aspect of the problem is that that press release was meant to the public. Knowing that part of the Stardust-NExt science team, but also of the engineering team, is composed of women, it would have been a plus to highlight this in the title and text.
    As noted in the above comments, it would not have taken much effort to properly communicate to the public, e.g., high school girls, that the mark left on that comet was the result of the huge work and commitment of a group of women and men from NASA, so that they could picture themselves being part of such a team one day.

  4. Zibi Turtle permalink
    February 17, 2011 2:34 pm

    In a discussion I had with a colleague several years ago about this very word, I made the point that, as a speaker, press-release writer, etc., one bears a certain amount of responsibility for conveying one’s meaning clearly to the audience. Using ambiguous language can leave the interpretation of one’s intended meaning up to the audience, so it’s in a speaker’s best interest to be specific lest they be misinterpreted.

    The word “man” has, of course, been used in some contexts, especially historically, to mean “human”. As has been discussed here, the word “man” is also used to mean “man”. If one uses the less specific word, the interpretation of what is intended is left to the listener. Not all people who use the term “man-made” actually intend it to mean “made by men and women” and, perhaps not coincidentally, not all people who hear “man-made” interpret it to mean “made by men and women”. Thoughtless use of gender-specific language, however unintentional, does have consequences: at best it makes a poor impression on a substantial fraction of the audience, at worst it gives some of the audience the impression that they’re not included.

    As it should, NASA goes to great lengths to report scientific results to the general public. Press releases are edited repeatedly to make sure the language is clear and not laden with scientific jargon, so that the information is conveyed effectively to the audience. The lack of care demonstrated by this headline is, thus, especially frustrating.

    Personally, I think it’s worth the small extra effort to amend one’s language to be inclusive. A little extra thought and a few extra syllables are a small price to pay to make sure that everyone who’s interested in science and engineering feels welcome.

  5. February 16, 2011 11:02 pm

    Does that mean I can walk into the bathroom marked “Man”? Or that I can “man up’? Or that “I’m da man”?

    I don’t think so.

    No, I don’t consider myself a part of something man-made, or a member of mankind, nor have I ever manned a booth.

    And – yes, more important sexism occurred today – but don’t tell me what my priorities should be – as one commenter (and indeed we’ve heard this before – MANy times) attempted to do.

    Language, as we all know is very important. NASA should know better — and so should commenters, esp ones who choose their words carefully.

    In solidarity,

  6. Britt Scharringhausen permalink
    February 16, 2011 10:17 pm

    I always, always correct my students’ use of “man” or “mankind” to “humanity.” (Such corrections are drearily frequent, as so many of them think that “For thousands of years man(kind) has looked up in wonder at the night sky.” is an original and informative way to begin an astronomy term paper. **sigh** )

    It’s embarrassing when college students do it. For an educated person to use “man” or “man-made” in their professional writing is just flat-out unacceptable.

    My own struggle is to remember—especially while teaching—to used “human spaceflight” and “crewed vehicle” instead of using “manned.”

  7. February 16, 2011 8:49 pm

    It’s tough to make people understand something that doesn’t affect them. The importance of words and what they say to our kids, our daughters and sons. Maybe it’s not so astonishing why so few girls are going into the sciences.

  8. Kim permalink
    February 16, 2011 8:19 pm

    It’s not about what they meant, it’s what they said. And they didn’t say “mankind,” they said “man-made”. That’s a bit more excluding of women’s efforts, I’d say. The US is having enough trouble getting and keeping women in the hard sciences. Headlines such as these can and undoubtedly will be discouraging to some females with aspirations to be involved in the space program. We should be moving away from this kind of language. Words like artificial, synthetic, unnatural would have been much better!

  9. Lisa (MsBehavior) permalink
    February 16, 2011 6:49 pm

    I suppose it boils down to where you hail from. The Canadian Government has addressed this issue and states as follows:


    The need to deal equally with men and women highlights the desirability of drafting using gender-neutral language. Laws that exclude references to the female gender do not promote gender equality. For this reason, gender-specific language should not be used in legislation. Gender-specific words should be replaced with gender-neutral words that have the same meaning. In addition, the following writing techniques should be considered to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun:

    1. use the singular “”they”” and its other grammatical forms (“”them””, “”themselves”” and “”their””) to refer to indefinite pronouns and singular nouns;
    2. replace the masculine pronoun with an article;
    3. use both pronouns “”he”” and “”she””;
    4. use the plural;
    5. use a neutral word or phrase such as “”person””, “”any person””, “”every person”” or “”no person””;
    6. repeat the noun;
    7. rewrite the sentence in order to eliminate the pronoun completely.

    It can be argued that words only have as much power as we allow them to have, but we should know better.

    As a woman who works in a male dominated industry, I can speak to how frustrating it is trying to prove my stripes time and time again while men in my field with less experience are taken more seriously simply because they’re equipped with a penis.

    Susan, I’m so glad you pointed it out. Every issue needs a champion.

  10. February 16, 2011 5:52 pm

    As a student of public administration, the debate over gendered language is one we are still having. Which is unfortunate.

    There are studies that show that even today the use of “man” invokes an image of a man. Not a man and a woman.

    As a scholar of women in science issues, Susan is darn tooting correct. This type of language does instill a sense of otherness in women science students. A reminder that they don’t fit the norm and thus are outsiders or even invaders.

    I do hope that NASA follows up with you and sees this as a learning moment.

  11. Trish Smith permalink
    February 16, 2011 4:36 pm

    I totally understand some of the commenters’ objections to this post: I mean, come ON, pronouncing the word “humankind” instead of “mankind” is really too arduous a task. How dare you ask them to do that?? In comparison, women’s concern over the use of the word “mankind” to designate women is really quite piddling. You have a lot of nerve asking them to stop using one word and using another; why put the (incredibly strenuous) onus on them? They’d have to USE A DIFFERENT WORD! A DIFFERENT WORD, my GOD THE TRAVESTY!

  12. February 16, 2011 4:27 pm

    Language always matters. It is easy enough to add those two little letters. Human-made. We are all humans. Fortunately, we are not all men… or there wouldn’t be many more of us, would there?

  13. February 16, 2011 3:55 pm

    The fact that people understand that “man-made” WAS used, until the 80s or so, as a default to cover humankind does not excuse the fact that it is sexist, enforces male dominance and prominence, and has been understood as such and thus generally dropped over the past 25 yrs. I understand what a great many terms mean, but that doesn’t mean they don’t carry problematic histories that an institution like NASA has no business reinforcing.

    For NASA to CHOOSE the word for a project women worked prominently on is insulting. It says, “We don’t care about gender equality. We have women working for us but we don’t value them enough to represent their contribution and their gender respectfully.” Rather it says, “Yeh, we’re really still a boys’ club.”

    The designation of “man” does not actually represent me. I am not a man. When payrolls for men & women of equal education and skill level are equal, and when our culture accords equal power to that which codes feminine, maybe we can bring back “mankind” and “manmade.” Until then, “humanity” and “human-made” shouldn’t cause you too much trouble.

  14. February 16, 2011 3:49 pm

    It matters, and thanks for blogging about it. They should be more aware of this kind of single-gendered language and avoid it. Doesn’t matter what we were taught “by female teachers” at any point in time. “Man” means a person with testes (at least at birth). “Human” means any person, and people of two sexes–i.e., born with ovaries or testes–were on this project. What someone learned about gendered language in the ’70s matters little except as historical arcania today. Fireman is now “firefighter,” and there’s a reason for that. “Man-made” is now “human-made,” and there’s a reason for that. At the very least, accuracy in language should be respected here, even if you don’t respect the fight for women in the sciences, particularly in the “hard” sciences, for representation.

    It’s not like you went on an extended rant. It’s something that needed to be noted, and you noted it.

  15. February 16, 2011 3:16 pm


    You might be interested in a post I wrote in January 2005 about this very subject and, coincidentally, it was because of a headline about Deep Impact.

    Kudos to you for being frustrated. You have cause to be, as do I…still!

    • February 16, 2011 4:31 pm

      Ooh, I do remember that post! Oh, we try to ignore these slights, but it still stings, doesn’t it?

  16. February 16, 2011 12:33 pm

    I understand the frustration, Susan. The steps are small.

    I believe that our boys will look back on these days and be surprised to hear this was ever an issue.

    • February 16, 2011 4:17 pm

      I hope so, Kristen. But how many thought that that would be the case with OUR generation? This debate was raging over thirty-five years ago, and before we were born.

  17. February 16, 2011 10:36 am

    @Brandon: So if you really think everybody thinks of man and woman when reading such a press release: Just do the test: Ask ten of your best friends to state “the five most important scientists and engineers of the 20th century”. And then ask other ten friends for “the five most importent men and women in engineering ans science in the 20th century”. Compare the lists. If you want repeat with a bigger number of test subjects.

    Friends of mine did a similiar test about politicians and the result was very very sad. Asked for five important politicians (“Politiker”) the most lists did not even feature one single woman politician. When people were asked for male or female politicians (“Politiker und Politikerinnen”) most of the lists did include women.

  18. glenceo permalink
    February 16, 2011 7:14 am

    It is ingrained in our culture that “man made” means human kind. Ok. If you have a problem with this then you obviously don’t care about female discrimination at all. How many women are stoned to death in the middle east for example. Once you’ve dealt with all the actual issues of discrimination then move on to the tit picking.

    • February 16, 2011 9:26 am

      “tit picking”? Really?


      I think you meant “nit picking,” which might be what I’m doing, but given the nature of your slip in regards to the discussion at hand, I couldn’t help myself.

  19. February 16, 2011 6:26 am

    It always surprises me when I hear people being bothered by the fact that the word “man” (short for human being) and “man” (a male of that species) happen to be spelled and pronounced the same. I was taught as a child in the 70’s (by female school teachers) that just because two words are spelled the same doesn’t mean they are the same (e.g. row = to propel a boat using oars vs row = a fight), and the two different (though slightly related) meanings of man were on the list of such words.

    They taught that us to tell them apart from context–any place wherein the word could be seen to refer to any member of the species (such as “man-made” or “fireman”) it clearly does so, and only in places where the context makes it clear that the word is limited to one gender should it be read as such (there are twice as many men as women standing in that line).

    • February 16, 2011 4:15 pm

      I think it would be easier to ignore the use of words like “man-made” or “manned” if indeed women faced no extra barriers to a career in science.

      My research has not shown that to be the case.

      • February 16, 2011 9:54 pm

        Unfortunately, referring to usage even in a totally literary/scholarly context blurs the lines of whether “man” is the gender neutral “man”. For example, in the book I am writing now I start each chapter with a literary reference (the book is on parrot biology/science). It’s been painful to find a quote without the ambiguous use of “man” for example, Hemmingway “Every man’s life ends the same way … only the details of how he lived and how he died … distinguish one man from another” I am sure he meant male human beings, although the same applies to female human beings. (yes I used the quote anyway, but I paraphrased it to be gender neutral in the text). Here’s the problem: for young women struggling to achieve in science, math and engineering, there are far too many barriers still, and ambiguous gender-specific language does not further the confidence of women. Yes, it’s true that good, succinct substitutes are often difficult to find. I remain certain that we must try, especially in areas with major barriers remaining for women.

        I am assuming that such barriers still exist at NASA. My department and I think most of the university has dropped the supposedly gender neutral “chairman” and just use “chair” as both noun and verb, referring to committees and departments. Other substitutions are not so easy. However in environmental science, we talk about “anthropogenic climate change”… not “man-made climate change” or “climate change caused by man’s activities” (except for Sarah Palin).

  20. February 16, 2011 4:55 am

    (Sigh. How did the mansplainers find their way here?)

    If you do get a reply from NASA regarding this release, could you please post an update?

    • February 16, 2011 4:10 pm

      I’d be happy to. I sent a much calmer letter to the senior press official named on the release (who I worked with, back in the day), explaining my concern last night, and I really hope that he does respond. I love NASA. Always have. This site is a labor of love, and not once has it gotten rant-y or critical of NASA in any way until today.

      It just was so … unexpected. I thought that this was an argument in the history books by now. I never dreamed that the debate was even still active (clearly I didn’t, as I didn’t even include analysis or citations from the literature in the post above).

  21. Rejinx permalink
    February 16, 2011 2:11 am

    It bothers me that with real racism and sexism in the world this stuff is what you choose to make a fuss about. There were likely 1000’s of instances of women being protrayed as sex objects and male play things on TV today and you deside to jump on “man-made”.

    • KarenElhyam permalink
      February 16, 2011 2:22 am

      Yes, but I doubt any of them happened at NASA. For a blog titled “Women in Planetary Science,” it makes more sense to talk about the problems at NASA than it does to talk about TV, movies or other fields, right?

      • Rejinx permalink
        February 16, 2011 2:36 am

        I say her post had nothing to do with space ethier, but back to the point of the blog post.
        NASA is using the term ‘man properly’ as defined in both the Marriam-webster dictionary: ” man = the human race”
        Man = “a human being; person”
        If you put 10 people in a room you will find 10 difirent ways people get offended. If NASA was to not offend they would have to stop releasing anything.

    • February 16, 2011 2:48 am

      Ah, the Marginalisation Hierarchy™.

      • February 16, 2011 3:59 pm

        Rejinx, you neglect to mention that your entry has this note at the bottom:
        —Usage note
        The use of man 1 to mean “human being,” both alone and in compounds such as mankind, has met with objection in recent years, and the use is declining. The objection is based on the idea that man is most commonly used as an exclusive, sex-marked noun meaning “male human being.” Critics of the use of man as a generic maintain that it is sometimes ambiguous when the wider sense is intended ( Man has built magnificent civilizations in the desert ), but more often flatly discriminatory in that it slights or ignores the membership of women in the human race: The man in the street wants peace, not war.
        Although some editors and writers reject or disregard these objections to man as a generic, many now choose instead to use such terms as human being ( s ), human race, humankind, people, or, when called for by style or context, women and men or men and women. See also -man, -person, -woman.

  22. February 16, 2011 2:07 am

    And MENstruation and MENopause? Give me a break, Brandon. Man-made is not latin, it’s English for MADE BY MEN. The reason that’s offensive is because male should not be the default gender.

    btw the latin origination of human comes in both masculine (humanus) and feminine (humana). The “man” in human has nothing to do with the modern meaning “men”. The latin for man btw is “homo.”

  23. February 16, 2011 1:46 am

    I know this might not mean much coming from a male, and I understand your frustration. But CMON! You know what they ment. MAN=Mankind=huMANs.

    I know some things need to be shown for the sexism they stand for, but I HIGHLY doubt NASA’s announcement counts.

    • February 16, 2011 2:02 am

      Brandon, “Man Made” obliterates the WOmen involved, just as mailMAN occludes female mail carriers; FireMAN emphasizes that it’s a MAN ONLY job, as opposed to fire FIGHTER; etc. Language matters, and in a male-centric field like NASA “MAN made” puts an inordinate amount of stress on maleness. “Human made” is more inclusive. If you REALLY understood the frustration you wouldn’t be so quick to leap in with an argument that MAN really means EVERYONE. “Male” as default continues to put “female” as outlier and not normal.

    • February 16, 2011 4:00 pm

      My point is that the careless use of language can have a serious effect on the career preparation and choices of a population that is already underrepresented at NASA today. This is not an academic argument for me. I am a Ph.D. astrophysicist (cosmic rays) who has fought at every stage to stay in the game, against the expectations of advisors, professors, and sometimes peers. The women of tomorrow should have barriers removed, not reinforced.

      As for your first comment? I never discount an opinion simply due to the gender of the speaker.


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