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.
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.
former Discovery Program Scientist
and founder of Women in Planetary Science, http://womeninplanetaryscience.com