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Although this terminology appears increasingly outdated, given pressures towards equal opportunity and the use of non-sexist language, the term ‘manpower’ remains in regular use.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:
- 2003: A beamline proposal for the UK national light source Diamond
- 2010: A presentation by the US Department of Energy on the “lessons learned” in the construction of the LCLS in Stanford, California.
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…