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Gender-neutral language matters

February 24, 2011
Email sent to Dwayne Brown, lead PR contact on NASA press release 11-046 on Monday, Feb. 14.  It’s been over a week now, and there has been no response fron NASA.
Dear Dwayne:
I was disappointed to see the phrasing of tonight’s press release, “NASA Releases Images Of Man-Made Crater On Comet.”  This was an amazing opportunity for scientists and schoolchildren alike to see the results of a planetary science experiment on a truly cosmic scale, and yet the very title of the release does not encourage students thinking about a future career in science, math or engineering.  Indeed, it dissuades them.
Well, half of them, anyway. 
You see, language matters.  And when girls read about manned missions to the moon, manned spacecraft, or a man-made crater on a comet, they are far less likely to read on, to read further, and to imagine themselves in the role of one of those lucky scientists and engineers.  Which means that as time goes on, fewer push themselves to take and excel in higher math and more sophisticated science classes.  Fewer perservere through hard times, tough professors, and touchy teaching assistants.  Fewer graduate with STEM degrees, and fewer still compete for the competitive NASA fellowships and the JPL postdocs and the elusive GSFC civil servant positions.  Fewer are available at every level, in fact, and then the field is simply unbalanced, with women only ten percent of the population in planetary science at the senior professor level.
Which means that almost half our field is missing.
Now I know that some see will this as “only” a question of language, but it really does have implications for the field of planetary science today and the field as it will be forty years from now, when today’s schoolchildren are proposing to lead the flight missions of tomorrow.  On the day that proposals for the 2068 mission to Mars are received, will there be an equal distribution of proposals led by men and women?
Or will almost half the proposals be missing?
Please consider using gender-neutral language in NASA press releases.  It matters, and it has long-reaching impact.
Susan Niebur
former Discovery Program Scientist
and founder of Women in Planetary Science, 
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Tanya Harrison permalink
    March 4, 2011 12:58 am

    I agree with John A.—when I hear “man-made,” I think of the word “man” as meaning “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 probably bigger issues to worry about regarding women in the sciences than this instance of word choice.

    sutari: I have also not felt significantly underrepresented in geology or planetary science, both when I was in college and now in the professional world. There are plenty of women at the conferences I’ve been to, and at my workplace we are about 50/50 men vs. women. However, as an undergrad I was an astronomy and physics major. In the astronomy department, there were actually more women than men student-wise (although professor-wise it was a different story), but in physics there were definitely far more men. I was the only girl in my junior-level quantum mechanics class in college, and I went to a rather large university (University of Washington), so that was pretty surprising to me.

  2. John A permalink
    February 28, 2011 5:13 am

    There is no such thing as gender neutral language. Language is a reflection of the sexual dimorphism of the human species. Never mind English, have you seen the much more overt gender imbalances in European, African and Asian languages?

    When I see “man-made” I take it to mean “made by humans”.

    Congratulations on being one of the finalists for “Best Science Blog”. Although you didn’t win this time, hopefully it raised the profile of this blog.

  3. sutari permalink
    February 25, 2011 8:48 am

    I struggle with this one, Susan, I really do. I understand and for the most part agree… I think. I am “OK” with the fact that we now have fire fighters and mail carriers. I notice when someone has written something generally, a story or an explanation for something, and they have written “she” instead of “he”, when neither gender is implied by the context and is in fact irrelevant to the story. I make note of the colors on the floors of Congress that are not dark blue, figuring every spot of red or white or green is covering a female representative.

    But part of me wants to object. To say, not “who cares”, but to say “really?! Are girls and women so unthinking, so incapable of independence, so easily swayed, that they cannot “relate” to maleness? That someone can’t be a role model if they aren’t female? That someone won’t follow a path, won’t take the classes they really WANT to, because that is ‘for boys only’?” It offends me (OK, strong word, it bothers, annoys, whatevers me) because it gives us so little credit.

    Maybe I am different. Maybe I was lucky. I had a lot of girls in my high school science classes (not that I particularly noticed or cared). My male physical geography teacher was awesome and never once said anything that might have been construed even by my clueless self as derogatory or discouraging. I majored in geology at university and our class was 50/50. I noticed, in the pictures on the walls, that you had to go back a long way to find class pictures that were heavily male. So maybe this program was different. Maybe geology isn’t a “hard” enough science for the gender discrepancy to show up (though heck, if walking around with a hammer peeing in the woods after a cold beer at the end of slogging 10 km isn’t a guy thing, I don’t know what is!).

    So I struggle. Yes, words matter. But these particular words? Not so sure….

  4. February 24, 2011 8:11 pm

    I’m really disappointed to hear that you haven’t gotten a reply: does NASA have a Twitter account or anything that we could direct backing messages to?

  5. February 24, 2011 1:52 pm

    Words matter – YES. Each and every word impacts the person who reads it. If a reader cannot see themselves – cannot identify – as the person in the writing, then they will not be engaged.

    As you say, the phrase “man made” works to unconsciously discourage females from connecting with the material. An organization with a reasonably sophisticated PR engine, like NASA, should already have a list of gender neutral words to use in situations like this. In the case of “man made” what we mean is “human made” of course. For this headline, I’d say the additional two letters would have been worth the effort. I am very much aware that it takes the reader a bit more effort to read a phrase that they have seen less often than one they have seen more often. A press writer does not want to “stutter” the reader’s thought process – but in this case, as I said, the effort is worth it. We have to make sure that phrases like this *become* commonplace, or we will never make the mental shift to true gender equality.

    Of course, as a sci-fi writer, two genders and one species seems pretty straightforward. 🙂
    One Writer’s Mind


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