Saturday, September 06, 2014

How to avoid sexist language in space - Dr Space Junk wields the red pen.

Some people have been asking if there is a handy guide to avoiding sexist or gender exclusive language when describing space exploration, human spaceflight, and general space stuff, so I've decided to write one.

To begin, a very brief rationale for why this is important. When you're a bloke, terms such as "mankind" automatically include you. You don't have to think about it at all; you're already in there. Now we all know that these terms are supposed to also include women; but the reality is a bit different. Firstly, women have to "think themselves into" such expressions, even if it happens at a subconscious level. Secondly, there have been studies which show that men tend to assume such expressions to refer to them alone and do not automatically include women unless stated, again often at a subconscious level. And finally, there are plenty of examples of women attempting to exercise a right of "man", only to be told it does not apply to them.
This image is from John Sisson's fabulous blog Dreams of Space - Books and Ephemera. Non-fiction children's space flight stuff 1945-1975

So basically, the continued use of manned, mankind, etc, simply reinforces the impression that space is for men and not women. Remember the little girl who was bullied at school for having a Star Wars drink bottle until she asked for a pink one instead? And the numerous stories of little girls wishing they were born male so they could become astronauts? This is in the last couple of years too, not in the dim, dark past. This is the backdrop against which the many women working in space industry strive to succeed. And they are AWESOME.

The United Nations, in the Vienna Declaration, has made a commitment to increase marginalised groups' access to space - this includes "developing" nations and women. (And it goes without saying that there are all sorts of intersections with class, race, gender and geopolitics - for which I refer you to the inspiring work of Anne McClintock and Donna Haraway).

If, by changing a few words, you could contribute to creating a less "chilly climate" for women in space, why wouldn't you do it?

So here's my cheat sheet of common expressions in space and alternative ways to say them.
man: human, people, person
mankind: humanity, humankind
man-made: manufactured (this is derived from hands), artificial, human-made, human
manned: crewed, staffed, piloted, astronaut (adj)
manned mission: human spaceflight, astronaut mission
manned spaceflight: human spaceflight
spaceman: astronaut, cosmonaut, taikonaut
unmanned: robotic, automatic, autonomous

Because Dr Space Junk is always happy to help, here are a few examples that will get you started on the way to gender inclusiveness in no time!

1. "Gagarin's achievement launched a new era in the history of mankind".
Gagarin's achievement launched a new era in the history of humanity.
Easy-peasy, that one. The next one is slightly harder.

2. "Further manned space flights occurred in quick succession"
Further crewed space flights occurred in quick succession.
Further astronaut missions occurred in quick succession.
Further human space flights occurred in quick succession.

Sadly, the "crewed" option doesn't work so well when spoken aloud.

3. "On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 spacecraft and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space".
This one doesn't need the red pen. Hurrah!

4. "Following this success, President John F. Kennedy announced on May 25, 1961, the dramatic and ambitious goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
This is slightly more complex, because while the statement is not formatted as a quote, they are the actual words of JFK. What you can do here is add a [sic] after "man". If you're not familiar with the use of [sic], here's a brief explanation from Wikipedia:

The Latin adverb sic ("thus"; in full: sic erat scriptum, "thus was it written") inserted immediately after a quoted word or passage, indicates that the quoted matter has been transcribed exactly as found in the source text, complete with any erroneous or archaic spelling, surprising assertion, faulty reasoning, or other matter that might otherwise be taken as an error of transcription.
It indicates you're aware that you're reproducing an outdated or problematic idea, while retaining the usage of the time and the accuracy of the quote.

(On the other hand, though, at this time all astronauts were men; their ranks were drawn from test pilots, and women were barred from this profession. So JFK did literally mean "a man").

5. "Shortly afterwards on July 21, 1961, Gus Grissom piloted Liberty Bell 7 on the second American (suborbital) spaceflight. This was the second of seven manned flights in Project Mercury".
This was the second of seven astronaut missions in Project Mercury.
This was the second of seven human missions in Project Mercury.
This was the second of seven piloted missions in Project Mercury.
This was the second of seven human spaceflights in Project Mercury.

However, 'piloted' may not always be appropriate. Here is what Carl Sagan had to say on this point (plus some other thoughts too):

Image courtesy of @DarkSapiens

6. "Meanwhile the Soviet manned space programme continued"
Meanwhile the Soviet human spaceflight programme continued.

7. "While the study of space is carried out mainly by astronomers with telescopes, the physical exploration of space is conducted both by unmanned robotic probes and human spaceflight".
While the study of space is carried out mainly by astronomers with telescopes, the physical exploration of space is conducted both by robotic probes and human spaceflight.
Sometimes you just have to remove a word. "Unmanned" is redundant in that sentence.

8. "the launch of the first man-made object to orbit the Earth"
the launch of the first human object to orbit the Earth
the launch of the first artificial object to orbit the Earth
the launch of the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth
the launch of the first manufactured object to orbit the Earth

If none of this is sufficient to persuade you, then I refer you to NASA's own Style Guide:

In terms of using he or she, of course when you are specifically referring to a man or woman you use them, but you don't use he to refer to men AND women or people in general. There's a lot of debate about this, but personally I have no problems at all using "they/them/their", the plural third person, to apply to the singular.

You may have other examples, ideas for alternative phrasing, or writing problems that need solving. Let me know, and I'll add them here or try to assist as best I can.

Thanks to @Smiffy and @4DC5 for their suggestions, and @DarkSapiens for the Sagan image. @ArielWaldman alerted me to the NASA Style Guide.
Updated to add Sagan 13 October 2014
Updated to add NASA Style Guide and minor changes to improve readability on 21 August 2015

Quotes from 1 - 6 are taken from History of Manned Spaceflight - Part I: The Pioneers. Quotes 7 - 8 are from Space exploration.


  1. Anonymous3:24 am

    About using the plural third person ("they") as a singular, you can simply avoid this by recasting the sentence in plural form. "When an astronaut opens the capsule door, they must be wearing a helmet" is not correct as "astronaut" is singular and "they" is plural. The sentence can be however be easily rewritten "When astronauts open the capsule door, they should be wearing their helmets".

  2. Thanks for the suggestion - a good option.

  3. I write about space sometimes..well a lot with regards to my paintings...and I am very conscious of not gendering my sentences [when I write about anything actually!]. But, writing about space does trigger a few more moments when choices in words can be made...I've never liked 'mankind'...'humankind' is such a great word.

  4. Anonymous10:36 am

    I agree that manned spaceflight is archaic. I use human spaceflight for any current and future missions. However, isn't some level of historical accuracy lost by referring to the Mercury missions, for instance, as human missions? For better or for worse (arguably for worse), they were manned missions. Using human in that context implies for those that don't know their history that women had a chance and simply didn't cut it. Instead, six men flew. It's sort of like saying the U. S. human Olympic hockey team won the 1980 Gold Medal.

  5. Anonymous10:47 am

    Why cannot 'Staffed' be used for number 5?

  6. In my experience"crewed" is hopeless because people always hear it as "crude". I prefer some form of "human spaceflight" but it's definitely the hardest one to make sound non-sexist and simultaneously non-awkward.

  7. Anonymous2:04 am

    "Astronaut" is biased against poor cosmonauts and taikonauts! Sometimes 'manned' is just needed and people should just get over it. As a woman who works at NASA, I am not offended in the least by the traditional terminology and would find these alternate terms unwieldy and not meaningful in the context of mission planning documents, reports and verbal discussions. Really, 'staffed' mission? First world problems, people. But I'm sure the sanctimonious PC crowd will force it upon us anyway.

    1. What is in a name? Perceived identity, classification, philosophy, and implied duty of the 'astronaut'.
      Langston, S and Pell, S 2015, 'What is in a name? Perceived identity, classification, philosophy, and implied duty of the 'astronaut'.', Acta Astronautica, vol. 115, pp. 185-194.

  8. Ive been using gender-neutral language for over 30 years in STEM contexts and it’s really no biggie. For anyone who’s had to master scientific writing style guides, it’s dead easy, and it’s hard to imagine how people who can get payloads into space could be challenged by using alternatives to “manned.” And I have a penis! Perhaps NASA is much further behind the curve than we suspected?

  9. Great reference. I sit on Standards Australia committees and we are changing the language of our standards for commercial divers to comply with legislation on this very topic. We had to grapple with manned and bellmen and terminology derived from male dominated maritime industries.

  10. "Crew-Carrying", albeit a bit clunky, gets round the crewed/crude homophone.