Manpower

I was a bit puzzled by that word the first few times I heard it in the context of my work, in conjunction with the European XFEL construction project. While recovering from the impact – after all, I had spent most of my working life in the US before, in a mostly politically correct environment – I told myself that the use of such a very clearly sexist expression must have been unintentional, and due to the fact that most of the people using it were not native English speakers who may not have realised the implications of the word they were using (this happens at my job). And, of course, physics is the most male-dominated of the natural sciences, so maybe there just hadn’t been anyone around who was willing to point out that the term may be problematic. I thought. So I was ready to forgive it as a somewhat curious historical leftover – and felt very generous about it, too.


Of course it’s old news that “manpower requirements” can be met by women if need be (start at ca. 4:50 into the film: “Manpower”, ca. 1943, U.S. Office of War Information)

But, after repeatedly hearing the term, it did eventually start grating a wee bit and I started wondering. I discovered that it’s rather widely used: I learned that “manpower planning” still seems to be a standard term in macro- and microeconomics (although wikipedia silently redirects the curious reader to human resources management). I had to chuckle when I came across this footnote in a 2001 report on “vocational training research in Europe”, which beautifully demonstrates an underlying reluctance to admit that there might be any problems concerning the term “manpower planning”:

Although this terminology appears increasingly outdated, given pressures towards equal opportunity and the use of non-sexist language, the term ‘manpower’ remains in regular use. The word planning has also come to be regarded in somewhat derogatory terms in some circles. The present review has adopted the alternative terminology of employment forecasting. This should be understood to refer to the analysis and management of all human resources.

The funny thing is that the term then continues to be used throughout the document – old habits are difficult to break, I guess, and change can be very difficult indeed for something that is so well established. See the UK Office for National Statistics NOMIS database for example, which – apparently selfconsciously – does not list its full name (“National Online Manpower Information System”) on its homepage anywhere. Instead it says “official labour market statistics” next to NOMIS in the header, and the term manpower does not appear on the page at all. (In contrast, the Singapore Ministry of Manpower does not seem to have this problem.)

Interestingly, a US National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council report from 1966 goes into much detail calculating the “manpower” needs in terms of PhD students required to fill future positions, and (on page 103) actually specifically refers to the number of male students getting bachelor’s degrees (one wonders whether there were no women or whether they just really weren’t of any interest). Of course, 1966 is a long time ago. But the term remains popular in project management of large physics research infrastructures today:

Since this stupid term seems so incredibly persistent, I suspect it will be very difficult indeed to finally get rid of it. So, for my corner of the world, I have decided to attack the problem at its root and to start changing the system from the inside: every time I find myself working on a document containing the word “manpower” (and I work on a lot of documents!), I will substitute it with the neutral expression “staffing” or “personnel requirements”, as appropriate. In fact, I consider it my duty to do so: there’s an over 20 year old resolution from the European Commission recommending that the governments of its member states “promote the use of language reflecting the principle of equality of women and men“.

See if anyone notices, and whether the written word cannot slowly but surely change what is spoken – and, by extension, what is thought.

For anyone who doesn’t feel like reading through the entire string of comments below, I’ve provided a short summary

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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66 Responses to Manpower

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. The written and spoken word is intimately related to gender (in)equality in society. It’s hard to differentiate between cause and effect; as in some cases the lack of political correctness is so widespread that some users of “manpower”, “mankind”, “Chairman”, etc. may not realize what this insinuates. On the other hand, the fact that there has not been a sufficiently conscious effort to change this (successfully) indicates a pervasive lack of equality. I would like to point out that in some languages, inequality is often bred into the language. In Hebrew, for example, “you” in singular is either in the masculine or feminine, but in plural the only “you” form is in the masculine derivation. I’m not a linguist, but I suspect other languages may have similar ways of organization. How’s that for a devious method of maintaining gender inequality?

    • steffi suhr says:

      It’s definitely more difficult with some languages, but there often seem to be ways around it if there is a will to change things. Consistent use helps – in Germany, the use of “Frau” instead of “Fräulein” also for (seemingly) unmarried young women started only really taking off when I was a teenager and now almost nobody would dare use the latter, diminutive form any more. Even awkward constructs like adding the (capitalized) female ending to a noun (which would otherwise be the male form) are frequently used in spoken language now (e.g. “StudentInnen” – pronounced “Student Innen”). Not ideal from an aesthetic viewpoint, but it seems to work!..

      In any case, I figure that I have a prime opportunity at my job to push things in the right direction…! (Funny you should mention “Chairman”, by the way…)

    • Steve, from what I remember of high school French lessons, you can use the plural feminine form of “you” for a group consisting entirely of women, but if even one man is present in a group of thousands of women, you have to use the masculine form. I remember our (female) teacher apologising to the girls in the class for having to tell us this, while all the boys cheered.

      • steffi suhr says:

        Hi Cath! I’d just started really noticing the curious lack of women in this thread… thanks for rectifying it.

        • Well, I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I held off on commenting because:

          a) think it’s obvious that this kind of language has power, and that changing the language can be one little push towards equality; and

          b) hate drama.

          🙂

  2. Stephen says:

    Good for you, Steffi – I agree with Steve’s point about the insidious effect of language.

    Coincidentally, I hesitated over the use of the word ‘men’ in the post I’ve just done about Joule. But since it was about an episode that happened in the 19th century that, as far as I can tell involved only men, I left the term in to allude, albeit sotto voce, to the sexism of the era.

  3. steffi suhr says:

    Fair enough, Stephen!

  4. cromercrox says:

    I see nothing wrong with the term at all. Certainly, I see nothing sexist about it. The term ‘Man’ is and was commonly used to refer to humankind in general, to men and women alike. I get very tired of the language being distorted to appease those in special interrests who feel they might be offended by words or terms where no sexist connotation was either meant or intended. Political Correctness, if it has had any effect at all, has been to degrade our language by introducing pompous circumlocutions where none were needed.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Cromercrox,

    I humbly disagree with that. Unfortunately, humankind has been largely controlled by the male gender since the days of the cave people. I am certain that the evolution of languages has been seriously impacted by this. As a result, for the first time in human history, there is an opportunity to modify language and consciously provide equality.

    Yes, it takes time (that’s how even this attempt to subvert evolution works), and saying “Chairperson” may sound funny at first. Over time, though, this becomes the norm and the next generation will automatically pick up the rectified language (so-called “politically correct”, but I would simply say “correct” or “fair” or “balanced”).

    I am absolutely convinced that the language and its usage exert at the worst, conscious levels of sexism, and at the very least subconscious support sexist attitudes.

  6. cromercrox says:

    I think we’ll have to agree to differ. Language modification for the reasons suggested sounds too much like Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ for comfort – the aim being to dominate the mindsets of all speakers, whether they want it or not, for political purposes. That’s just teh evilness.

  7. steffi suhr says:

    Henry, such adjustment in language is not to serve “political purposes”. I certainly do not have a political agenda in any of this. It’s to provide the basis for equal treatment. This may be more important in some environments than in others, where equal treatment is more ingrained in people’s thinking and daily lives. In other words, it would be fair enough to be bored if the issue was completely taken care of and there was no reason to keep going on about it.

    (And I don’t think language can be “degraded”.)

  8. cromercrox says:

    We’ll just have to agree to differ, then.

    • steffi suhr says:

      I appreciate that you don’t want to fight over this, Henry – I am just back from IKEA, so the fight has gone out of me as well (together with some of my will to live). But if you change your mind and want to elaborate on your point a bit more, don’t hold back.

      • cromercrox says:

        I’d very much like to elaborate on this. But the issues are non-trivial, and concern many things – poliics, language, upbringing, history, ideas about discrimination specifically and more generally, the milieu in which one is allowed to express dissent – so I shall have to wait until I can devote some time to thinking about it all clearly and rationally. I’m battling with a conference and a 7-hour time difference so my brain is concerned with zoology, homology and gene expression and other good things… when not trying to transform itself into scrambled egg.

  9. I guess I’m somewhere in between on this. I think the gender politics issues are real, and inequality is still a fact, but the “sexist language” thing in particular really does strike me as a red herring (is that the same as a shibboleth?). Tackle inequality, sure, but – at the risk of a flaming – is banging on about never calling people “chairman” really the way to do it? I would be looking at equal pay, especially in lower income jobs, way before anything else. And I have to say that (IMHO) I doubt women in white collar jobs – including academia – suffer anything like the same institutionalised disadvantage in e.g. pay/promotion that they do in manual/low pay jobs, though more subtle forms of disadvantage/discrimination clearly remain.

    Having said all that, were I writing a formal document, I would almost certainly pick a term other than manpower, since it is such an obviously “genderised” word – “staffing requirements”, perhaps, as Steffi said. But I would draw a distinction between avoiding “clear assumption” words for less hackle-raising alternatives (easy & sensible), and “de-masculinizing” language in word-torturing ways (convoluted & silly). The latter allows people to trivialise the real issues (pay and opportunities) and evokes hostility even in people who are broadly sympathetic.

  10. steffi suhr says:

    I guess if that makes you “in between”, I’m in between myself, Austin – hence my devious plan to specifically change “manpower”. It’s one of the few ways in which I feel I *may* be able to influence things at least a little bit, and the word is such an obvious candidate.

    Concerning other issues such as pay, since you mention it: after thinking about it for a second – are you actually setting “women in white collar jobs” and those in “manual/low pay jobs” against each other? And is it actually necessary to make that distinction in this context?

  11. Steve Caplan says:

    Austin and Steffi,

    If you are both “in between”, I guess that leaves me stuck on the “radical side”. On the one hand, I certainly agree that concrete issues such as wage differences take first priority on a day to day basis. I also understand the point about “trivializing” real issues–but I don’t agree. I think that the language issues really aren’t “trivial” and that “masculine language” does ultimately support a gender bias in society. Even in the “politically correct” US, my partner occasionally receives mail addressed to Mrs. Steve Caplan. Despite earning a Ph.D., keeping her own family name, and having her very own first name, she is being stripped of her identity. I agree that using the term “Chairman” is not in the same category–but once all the major issues have finally been dispelled with (soon, I hope), I believe it will be necessary to make a conscious effort to rid language of residual “genderization”.

    • I personally think the naming one (“Mrs Steve Caplan”) is just the dying fall of long-held ingrained ways, Steve. The key principle is already conceded – it just takes time to work through all parts of the system. Perhaps it depends on whether you see the lingering bits of the old terminology as indicative of ingrained discrimination and/or widespread resistance to change, or just reflecting the time it takes for those who grew up with the old ways to work their way out of the system. I take the latter view, on the whole.

      In the meantime, my feeling is that you just make the point where necessary, but without making a big song and dance out of it. For instance, the house we live in is in my partner’s name. So when people call us up, get me, say “Is that Mr [her surname]?” and start giving me their spiel, I just say “Hold on, you want to talk to… , she’s the homeowner” and pass them over. If they can’t get their head around it, they don’t get our business.

      Funnily enough, the most routinely “gender-crass” group of people we have dealt with, by several streets, are car (auto) salesmen. We bought a family diesel 5/7-seater bus not so long ago, mainly paid for by my partner as it was going to be her car. It was truly hilarious seeing the salesmen automatically direct most of their pitch at me, even when we made it crystal clear to them that it was her car and that she was doing the choosing and buying.

  12. rpg says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about this and wondering if simply because I’m a white male I’m going to be less sensitive.

    I don’t think so, somehow. I think ‘manpower’ is perfectly acceptable, in much the same way as ‘mankind’ is. The maleness of the ‘man’ is no longer part of the word. You could say the same for ‘manhole’ and indeed, ‘blackboard’ (or ‘whitewash’, come to that).

    Yes, words are important. No, ‘manpower’ isn’t even in the same class as ‘Mrs Steve Caplan’. Why say ‘chairman’ when we can just as easily say ‘chair’ (which, after all, is already in common use and is shorter to boot).

    I fear that concentrating on (what to me seem to be) trivial issues of language could very well do more harm than good. Political correctness gawn mad, an’ all that.

    • cromercrox says:

      I agree. If one is going to fight inequality, one should keep one’s powder dry for issues that mean real inequality for real people, such as (as Austin says) people doing low-paid work (see my comment below) rather than relatively privileged people of any gender in academia, which already has the reputation of living in ivory-towered isolation. Harping on about nuances of language is trivial by comparison and will mean nothing to the majority of people, except to make you look silly in their eyes. Which is no way to advance your cause. Just sayin’.

  13. steffi suhr says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about this and wondering if simply because I’m a white male I’m going to be less sensitive.

    I’m wondering why, so far, only men have commented directly on this issue on this thread.

    And no, neither “manpower” nor “mankind” are acceptable anymore. Does it hurt at all to say “humankind” etc. instead?

  14. I wasn’t setting them up in opposition, Steffi – I think the point is that pay discrimination is far and away the key issue, money having become, for better or worse, the key index of how much society/bosses think you are worth. The linked point is that the pay discrimination is worse the lower you get down the job/pay ladder, and that of course the less you get paid, the more the difference produced by discrimination matters. I suppose I might be tempted to argue that the key feminist issue of the day is, therefore, not really the more subtle bits of discrimination in well-paid professional occupations. It is rather the problems of women running single-parent families and doing part-time, possibly unskilled work: the interface of social deprivation and gender discrimination, as it were.

    Of course, there are counter-arguments, one being the “institutional discrimination must be fought at all levels” one, and another the “fight on your own ground/where you see issues in your own environment”. I have more sympathy for the second argument than the first.

    For women graduates, I don’t think there is any dispute that opportunities are enormously greater even than a generation ago, and wholly transformed from, say, 40 years ago. This is another reason why some people feel that continuing to make a touchstone issue out of discrimination in the professions and other graduate workplaces is re-fighting old battles when there are more important ones around – including many that cross genders.

    I would have said personally that the main gender issue in academia, and many other graduate-only jobs, is the ever-vexed one of how to combine the job with a family – something which clearly hits women and not men, and which you will be intimately familiar with (!). But we really only have this as a major issue now because the earlier battle over access and opportunity and (to a good extent) in-job gender discrimination is already won, at least at graduate job level.

  15. Stephen says:

    I agree with Austin that perhaps the naming issue is the “dying fall of long-ingrained ways” but I think it will still help to give a shove here and there.

    So I disagree with Richard’s contention that “manpower'” and “mankind” are still acceptable and, by implication, not weighted with meaning. They are, and the loss of a little lingual grace (though perhaps we can imagine our way out of that one?) is a small price to pay for raising consciousness.

    • cromercrox says:

      I believe that low-paid female employees of the City of Birmingham (if memory serves) won a court battle for pay equivalent to that of their male colleagues. This is a battle that should have been over years ago – inequality of pay being ilegal – but I recall that there was a lot of discussion about equivalence of jobs – how do you rate, for example, a dustman – sorry, refuse collector (a job almost always done by men) against a school dinner lady – sorry, catering staff (a job almost always done by women)?

  16. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks, Cath – yes, I suspected that a) would come up… 🙂

  17. Hermitage says:

    There is so much mansplaining in this section, it’s phenomenal. Read a few papers on stereotype threat (wikipedia probably has acceptable references), language and how things are framed have an immense impact on people. Nothing about language is trivial.

    I don’t understand why majorities get their noses out of joint when minorities point out that adjusting some systematic pattern of behavior (that would take 2s of conscious effort to change!) would benefit them. It’s always ‘oh this isn’t so bad, you’re overreacting, it’s trivial in the scheme of things [you have an amendment, god get over it already]’.

  18. cromercrox says:

    Here is a cautionary tale. Many years ago when the world was young a female academic wrote in to your favourite weekly professional science magazine complaining that Letters to the Editor always started ‘SIR -‘. It was outmoded and sexist, she said, with vigor, and at length. The then-editor, John Maddox, wrote a pithy reply that went like this: “Dear Dr XXX – I am the Editor, and I am a man.”

  19. rpg says:

    I seem to remember that ‘mansplaining’ was the subject of some wry amusement behind the scenes here.

    I love it when someone resorts to using that term non-ironically. Makes my life a lot easier.

  20. steffi suhr says:

    In what way, Richard?

  21. rpg says:

    Because it shows a lack of respect for the other person’s point of view. To be dismissed in such a way when you’ve actually thought seriously about the issue, tried to understand it and given an honest view (even if it disagrees with the original) is pretty insulting. It makes me realize I can dismiss that person’s opinion with equal aplomb. Which makes things easier for me.

  22. Mark Hartl says:

    I usually use the term staff requirements, not because of some uncontrollable urge to be politically correct, it simply sounds better. It’s good to see a lively debate in an over PC-ed world, where far too much time and resources are wasted on politically correctness rather than getting on with the business. My lab happens to be gender balanced, not because of political correctness, but because the right people with the right expertise/qualifications happened to be either male or female. Now let’s get back to work….

  23. rone says:

    While calling it a “stupid term” seems a bit much, i agree that using a sensible, gender-neutral term is preferable.

    For cromercrox and the rest who resist this, it’s not about whether there’s anything wrong with ‘manpower’, but whether using a gender-neutral alternative can help reduce the perception of bias in the language that we use. If you think that’s a good goal to have, consider altering the words you use. If not, by all means stick with what you have. But don’t denigrate efforts to change the language as Newspeak (really, how fucking cliché can you get), because that is not constructive.

    • cromercrox says:

      clichés are clichés because they are true. My objection has nothing to do with feminism or gender-neutral words, but wih political correctness. Language is a living thing and must go where it may. But the imposition of one kind of language on all people as a mechanism to change the way people think, whether from high-minded motives (which of course presupposes that the person doing the modification is right and everyone else is wrong, by definition) , or as a poltical ploy, is most definitely Newspeak, and for me ranks with the domination by an imposed religion over a native one (because of the proselytizing zeal of the adherents of the former) or the suppression of one language by speakers of another as a form of ethnic cleansing. The tone of your comment suggests to me that because I have a view that’s different from yours, it is wrong by definition – a very PC view to take.

      • rone says:

        Your “wrong by definition” inference says more about you than it does about me, i’m afraid. And there is no such imposition of language (and who could impose it? the Academie Anglaise?), and for you to frame it as such is a backhanded tactic (not to mention the rest of your verbiage here: “proselytizing zeal” “ethnic cleansing”).

        Seriously, ask yourself why you’re being such a jerk about this.

        • steffi suhr says:

          I’d prefer it if nobody was called a jerk on my blog, thanks! Your point stands on its own, I think.

          • cromercrox says:

            @rone: your failure to understand my ‘verbiage’ is telling – as is your language and tone. PC is the purposed domination of one set of views over another, made under the guise of fairness, and with the implication, a priori, that any dissenting view is wrong and can be dismissed without any attempt at engagement.

            @Steffi – thank you. Appreciated! I have been called worse things, though…

  24. cromercrox says:

    Steffi – Richard has made the point very elegantly, but I’d go further, as you’d expect, if only to justify my accusation that the usage of the term ‘mansplainer’ denotes hypocrisy. Please ask yourself this quesion – if the term ‘mansplainer’ is acceptable in your salon (but ‘manpower’ is not), what of the status of other words that indicate discrimination against particular groups? I am a man. I can’t help it. I was born that way. I also have a view that differs from yours. I am also a Jew. I can’t help that, either. So if I were to write a post about antisemitism, would it be acceptable for commenters to dismiss any well-reasoned argument I might make on the grounds that I’m a Yid?

  25. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks for the clarification Richard, I just wanted find out whether your comment was implying your dismissal of the entire point I am making with my post up there or not.

    @Henry: I like neither mansplainer nor femwhiner and find both terms rather childish (although I’m pretty sure they are used in an ironic way most of the time – aren’t they?). But if a commenter uses either word and other commenters have the opportunity to debate them on it (as you did), I feel that things are quite in order. Which is not to say that there may not be other terms that I would “censor” on here.

    • I don’t much like the words either (although they can be very amusing in the right context!), but think the rest of Hermitage’s comment was excellent 🙂

  26. rpg says:

    Oh gosh no, Steffi. I’m with you all the way, with the caveat that sometimes I worry about trivializing the very real issues you face by concentrating on such things.

    So I think it’s great that you do this, and it’s brilliant, actually, to raise awareness of such things. Just on my personal list of things to do to make the world a better place, that particular item is way, way down.

    • steffi suhr says:

      Fair enough! And don’t worry about me getting sidetracked by concentrating on just this one thing 😉

    • It may not be a high priority… but it’s on the list, and it’s an easy fix (there are existing words that work just as well). IMO it’s good to tackle some of the low-hanging fruit on your to-do list (interspersed with the more daunting tasks); it might not be of the highest priority, but it’s good for your own personal morale!

  27. Jenny says:

    I don’t have a problem with the word ‘manpower’. In my view, words evolve in particular ways and come to signify a meaning beyond that of its component parts or origins.

    For example, I’m wondering if people who object to the word ‘manpower’ also don’t use the term ‘human’, which is a very similar construct? I could be wrong, but I think the only difference between them linguistically is how long the latter has been in use compared with the former.

  28. steffi suhr says:

    Hi Jenny! If you’d asked me a few years ago, I may have had less of a “problem” with it as well, for much the same reasons you and Richard gave. What has changed is that:

    a) I hadn’t even heard someone use it before in real life – only its alternatives (staffing/personnel requirements etc.),
    b) I’m hearing it used exclusively by men talking about a group of…. primarily men.

    So to me the linguistics and origin of the word have just very much started to take the back seat compared to its real-life potential impact.

    One thing has become abundantly clear to me from this discussion: one’s perspective on such things varies tremendously depending on where one is sitting.

  29. Jenny says:

    I see your point, Steffi. ‘Manpower’ is an incredibly common word in the States and I’ve been hearing it and using it all my life in a generic sense. So for me, its subtext is benign. I do appreciate how different words can mean different things to different people, though, and I think it’s important not to dismiss legitimate concerns even if personally, one doesn’t feel the same impact.

  30. Jenny says:

    The US is a very big place, each state its own union.

  31. Mark Hartl says:

    Couldn’t agree more…

  32. rpg says:

    Nice to see a new face anyway. Welcome, Mark 🙂

  33. steffi suhr says:

    Hi Mark! Don’t mind Richard, he is just being nice because you agreed with him.

  34. Frank says:

    Interesting discussion. I’m with the in-betweeners (ahem). I absolutely believe that language reflects and affects the way we think, even when we are not aware of it. OTOH, it is annoying when familiar words become taboo and we have to use circumlocutions (though the apparent circumlocutions can become familiar in due course). And sometimes there may be an appearance of carrying things to ridiculous lengths.

    On my third hand though, it is too easy for me as a man to say there is nothing wrong with “manpower”. It doesn’t impact on me – I am included in “man”. In truth, there is nothing right with it either and if a simple substitution (“staffing requirements”) removes any hint of confusion then that strikes me as a substitution worth making in the cause of clear communication.

    I don’t like being told how to behave or how to express myself – it can be a shock to be told you are doing something that others disapprove of. But on balance I am grateful for the occasions when I have been told that, and I can learn from it.

  35. cromercrox says:

    I am now going to leave this discussion and campaign for the right of guinea pigs to join the fire brigade.

  36. Don’t you mean on horsepower, Stephen? It is clearly species-ist to have all discussions of power predicated upon the idea that only horses have it. I’m sure all the other animals are up in arms.

    • cromercrox says:

      I object strenuously to the term ‘up in arms’ as an appendagist statement. What about legs? Or fins? Or, while we’re about it, any other extrusion from the body wall? And does this discriminate against creatures that are fundamentally armless?

  37. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks to everyone for participating in the discussion – I felt compelled to post a summary.

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