Friday, October 6, 2017

Is this a Spaceman or an Astronaut? Gendered Language

On Wednesday, the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, I was reading a Space News article about the event. One line stood out to me: “Space would be a place where the new man of the future, the communist man, would live, explore and create.” I immediately pictured a towering, heroic man resembling Yuri Gagarin preparing humanity’s way to explore the cosmos.

I realized something about myself just then. My initial instinct is to take words literally. If the word is “man”, I picture a man. If the word is “manned” as in manned spacecraft, I picture a man or men in a spacecraft. An instant later, I correct myself. I know better intellectually. The speaker or writer didn’t literally mean man the majority of the time, they meant human. But by that point, it’s too late. The image of a male has already formed in my head.

Am I the only person who thinks this way, I wondered? Does everyone else in the world instantly translate “man” as “human”? Or are there others whose first instinct is to literally imagine or interpret “man” or “manned” as a man or men?

I took to social media for an unscientific poll on the matter. I asked my mostly-space-involved Twitter audience and mostly-not-space-involved Facebook audience the following question and offered the following choices:

If I say "manned", what is your IMMEDIATE 1st impression/image?
1) a man
2) a woman
3) men and women
4) gender-neutral human

Of 106 responses on a 24 hour poll on Twitter:
42% voted gender-neutral human
32% voted a man
26% voted men and women
0% voted a woman.

Of the 11 responses on Facebook, 100% voted gender-neutral human.

So altogether, with 117 votes:
47% voted gender-neutral human
29% voted a man
24% voted men and women
0% voted a woman.

From this (unscientific) poll, I came to two conclusions:

First, I’m not the only one who literally thinks “a man” as an immediate first impression. A bit more than a quarter of the respondents think the same way I do. Unreasonably extrapolating this out, it’s possible a quarter of the English-speaking population forms the image of a man in their minds when reading about manned spaceflight, spacemen, unmanned, man-made, and other gender-specific terms.

Second, the majority of people don’t think this way. This may explain why transitioning from gender-specific terms to gender-neutral terms (e.g., manned spaceflight to human spaceflight or crewed spaceflight) is unimportant to some people. For most people who use gender-specific terms when they mean the gender-neutral equivalents, it’s a habit from years past, a slip of the tongue, or a concept that never occurred to them. But for some, they just don’t see the big deal in using gender-specific wording. Maybe in their minds, everyone automatically knows “man” means human. They may even think the emphasis on gender-neutral language is overly politically correct.

This week, I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend whose first-grade-aged daughter wants to be an astronaut. But for some reason, despite knowledge of female astronauts, this girl thinks only boys can be astronauts. The mom said when they search for astronauts online, they find mostly male images. This could be because most astronauts have been men. This could also be because the general perception of “astronaut” in popular culture is male or for boys.

Since becoming a mother two years ago, I see the deep and widespread sexism in baby and child marketing from birth onward. Space-themed baby or children items are almost always labeled for boys. What impact does this gender-labeling of space, combined with gender-specific terms such as manned spaceflight and spaceman, have on the quarter of the population who literally forms an image of a male astronaut in their minds when hearing these terms? Is it enough to turn off a space-loving first grader who may go forward in life thinking a space career isn’t for her because she’s a girl?

Words matter. Word choice may not matter to you or to the majority of the population. But it may make a difference to others who think and process language differently than you do. I caught myself just today saying “congressmen” when I meant “members of congress” as a slip of the tongue. I recognize the changes I need to make within myself to be more accurate and inclusive in my language. Change comes from within ourselves first.


  1. This is a thing. When my boys were little(r), they rang out in peals of laughter on hearing I was a scientist. Why? Because "Mommies can't be scientists, only Abas."

    This, to the woman who taught them the names of the planets, told them about phases of the moon, why day and night happens. This, from the woman who told them the biggest number was infinity, and spoke so much math to them that the could both add before they were 3 years old (upon entering kindergarten at 6 they were supposed to be able to count to at least 20, and I still find that hilarious). This from the woman who stopped them on the way to the front door to point out Venus in the night sky, or to point at Sirius and explain that it's the brightest star at night, and that the Sun is a star too but much closer.

    They obviously didn't get that idea from me or my husband. And yet it was patently obvious to them that it must be so, enough that they thought I was making a silly joke.

    So yes, I can verify that language matters, as does all of the gendered media and merchandise. The boys (now 6 and 7) understand now that Mommies can indeed be scientists. But what other assumptions are tucked away into their brains that the aren't even aware of?

    1. Exactly. I could write several blog posts on the sexist language promoted by marketers to children and their parents to emphasize and space and STEM in general is for boys (unless it's pink, because pink is always for girls and never for boys, obviously). It's infuriating. I have a toddler daughter and a son on the way, and I worry about how these messages will affect them despite what my husband and I teach them. I'm so glad your boys now understand that yes, women and mommies can be scientists.