My mother always told me

There’s been a good discussion on my last post about the term “Manpower” – thanks to all who actively participated, here and on other channels. It has been fascinating to see that the suggestion of such a small adjustment as replacing the term “manpower” with a neutral alternative (“staffing” etc.) could cause so much headwind (to translate a saying directly from German).

Below is a (not necessarily comprehensive) list of the main arguments that I could see from the debate.


  • Suggesting preferable use of one genderized word over another may “trivialize” the issues of feminism.
  • The linguistic origin of the word “manpower” justifies its continued use.
  • I should concentrate on “bigger issues” instead/ I should not worry about changing the word since this is not a priority.
  • Purposely adjusting the language used in official documents equals attempted world domination.

In support:

  • The word clearly “has power”, which justifies suggesting a change.
  • There are ready alternatives that can be used.
  • The change is easily done and rather digestible.
  • Substituting the term as a first step may help to “nudge things in the right direction”.

I have to say that I found the arguments in support of the change much more convincing than those against, which to me seem to overly dramaticize (not to say somewhat ridicule…) the issue. Those who have supported the statements made in my post (thank you all very much) seem much more reasonable and level-headed overall in their arguments. But then I would say that of course.

What I have seen confirmed in this debate or learned new:

  • Any change or adjustment suggested by a smaller group is difficult to push through.
  • Women are not all on the same side when it comes to agreeing on the way(s) to address sexism.
  • Your daily/personal/professional experience (not to mention gender…) can heavily influence what you find acceptable in terms of “measures”.
  • Being in the minority is doubly difficult: you have to face the music where you are *and* you may be criticized by others outside of the situation for the ways in which you try to address the issues.

My mother always told me that I was never someone to choose the “easy path”, and right she was.

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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9 Responses to My mother always told me

  1. rpg says:

    Good. It’s people like you wot make a difference. Power to your elbow.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    My elbow says to say thank you.

  3. ricardipus says:

    Thanks for the summary, Steffi. I am one of those who really couldn’t be bothered reading through all the bickering in the comments on your previous post.

    “Headwind” is one term for what was generated… I can think of a few others. 😉

    As a totally unrelated aside, the CAPTCHA code for this comment was the surname of the chair of the research program I’m located in. I suspect a different kind of world domination is taking place…

  4. cromercrox says:

    Your mother was right. Now, if you’d blogged about gender-related pay discrimination, everyone would have agreed with you. When it comes down to it, everything is about money. Everything else is just fluff.

    But life wihout disagreement is no fun.

  5. chall says:

    I like the summary, which I ended up reading first…. Anyway, I think there is something to be said about “remembering that choice of words is important”, espeically since I am an “inbetweener” as in wanting/not disagreeing with chairperson and the likes of that. (Much rather than talking about chairwoman and making two words out of every one.)

    Coincidentally I was wondering about the French that Cath brought up since I remember it vividly from my days in school… that it was important to remember that “women only” would be distiguished from “men” or “men and woman”. Not sure what that makes to the langauge when learned as native. I guess quite similar to the German thing with feminine and maskuline endings and utrum/neutrum whereas Swedish “isn’t obvious but uses utrum/neutrum for things” [like English I suppose]?

    • steffi suhr says:

      I must have a selective memory, since I don’t remember that from my French classes! (If I saw it I’d recognize it though, I think).

      • chall says:

        Steffi: it’s the idea of using “elles” instead of “ils” which would implicate “all”… It might be a difference in how it was taught to me as a Swede where we only use one form of “they” rather than the elles/ils?!

        I fear I have forgotten more of the German grammar though 😉

  6. rpg says:

    After various comments left in other places, I’d just like it added to the record that I’m closer to understanding why Steffi would want to change behaviour in such a way.

    I still think anyone using ‘mansplainer’ non-ironically is silly, though.

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