In my mind, this comment Comment

is suggesting that gender specific terms should be avoided. I do not know how the community feels. The comment itself was flagged by a user as offensive (which seems extreme to me). Are terms like "man-hours" acceptable, or should we be holding ourselves to a higher standard?

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    If someone thinks 'man-hours' is sexist, they are crazy, in my opinion. – user14156 Apr 13 '16 at 15:53
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    I wouldn't call that comment "offensive" but it's certainly "not constructive". – ff524 Apr 13 '16 at 15:56
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    @JonathanReez in that case it seems like you would classify many members of humankind as crazy. – StrongBad Apr 13 '16 at 15:56
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    Just want to say I think the problem is the unconstructive/sarcastic nature of the comment, which even if not your intention, may add considerable bias to this discussion. – user18072 Apr 13 '16 at 21:11
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    @JonathanReez exactly. These days, some people are simply paranoid and see sexists, racists, etc everywhere and behind each corner even if there are none ... – Dilaton Apr 14 '16 at 22:26
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    Shouldn't you also ban newton, joule, watt, pascal, ampere, volt, and almost all other units, because all these people were men as well, much like the people behind 99.9% of our knowledge of physics? Is that proposal meant seriously? – Luboš Motl Apr 15 '16 at 6:03
  • In Germany isn't there a movement against Gender in Nouns. Why should they say Der Freitag? Certainly woman should be equal in all days ... – user12811 Apr 16 '16 at 12:54
  • In fact any real issues if they exist, such as for example male and female postdocs of equal quality and publication strength systematically not getting contracts for equal periods of time in a certain institution, do not get resolved by silly figths against the so-called gendered language, but by taking real actions and corrections of the hiring practice. – Dilaton Apr 16 '16 at 13:36

I am in favor of encouraging clarity above all else, and leaving other matters of language and style up to the author of the post.

As long as the language of the post is clear and it is consistent with the be nice policy, we should let authors express themselves as they prefer. If you don't like gender-specific terms or pronouns, don't use them in your own posts, but don't insist that others refrain from using them.


Gendered terms are bad, but I don't think we have adequate tools at hand for policing or otherwise creating a culture change for this. If you are reading this, I would suggest you refrain from using them totally ("man-hours", "he" when unspecified, "you guys", etc.), but I don't believe there's much more for anyone to do other than leading by example. I'm open to ideas though.

As for why I think gendered terms are bad: I do not say man-hours. There are women on my team. It is quite simply an incorrect term and I'm pedantic enough of a grammarian to end the question right there. Many in industry go through unconscious bias training where we experience the physical cognitive strain that comes in connecting "woman" and "scientist" in the same sentence (the number of people who feel no such strain is frighteningly small). Hofstadter's satire paper on the argument is the best evidence I know that gendered pronouns and default terms are harmful. I really can't write a conventional persuasive argument on the topic better than he illustrates it in this satirically-voiced essay, so I simply won't.

How much vigilante policing we should do via comments is another question, and I think the answer is not much. I would actually really like to hear a solution that helps us de-gender our Q&A besides comments that tend to pester and look more like (or are just indistinguishable from) trolling. The status quo is a bit unfortunate, but I don't see the available tools for policing being productive at all.

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    There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing in good solid correct standard English as one has learned it in school for decades or even centuries! It is rather the very unlogical awkward and often very clumsy and ugly changes of the structure of a since centuries well functioning language some vigilant PC advocates and busybodies try to enforce, that looks like trolling to me. I would certainly roll back any edits that change a he into a they when I talk about a single person or similar things ... – Dilaton Apr 15 '16 at 9:28
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    @Dilaton there is something wrong with it, sorry. And if you want to be pedantic on the tangent there's a lot of words, grammar, and spellings that have fallen out of usage in the past few decades or even centuries. As for the rest of the discussion, I linked an illustrative essay that makes the point better than I can, which you did not bother to read, so I'm not going to argue with you. – user18072 Apr 15 '16 at 14:52
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    Agree with you on both counts of the first paragraph. (I have a tendency to use "guys" as a unisex term, but as it's been pointed out to me that some people don't take it as such, that's their call and I try to find idiomatic synonyms if I'm writing here or in similar places.) – Yemon Choi Oct 4 '16 at 13:33
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    @YemonChoi wow, I was such a reasonable person back when I wrote this answer... – user18072 Oct 4 '16 at 15:12
  • So what do you say, do you use "person-hours" then ? (seems most likely but isn't entirely clear to me). – Nikana Reklawyks Oct 12 '16 at 20:27
  • @NikanaReklawyks yes, that's right. – user18072 Oct 12 '16 at 23:34

I think using many gender specific terms like "man-hours" is fine.

We should strive to use the more gender neutral ones where we can (e.g., "firefighter" over "fireman"), but I don't think we need to explicitly avoid words that are well understood and are normally not considered to be offensive.

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    Exactly. Changing clear and well established structures of the language just for the sake of overemphasizing PC for the heck of it, is not useful. I strongly disagree with certain trents in that direction that can be observed in particular in the English speaking world ... – Dilaton Apr 14 '16 at 22:18
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    Just leaving a comment to record my disagreement with @Dilaton's assessment, which he (or she?) is perfectly entitled to. (I'm not entering into debate; this comment is just here for anyone who also disagrees, since comments can only be voted up and cannot be voted down) – Yemon Choi Oct 4 '16 at 13:20

"man-hours" is not actually gender specifc. "man" is synonymous to "person", "worker" here.

Think about "mankind". That's everybody.

Imagine a female firefighter saying "I'm not a fireman!" as if it were an insult. Half her colleagues will feel slightly insulted. Fat lot of good that'll do for gender equality.

It's even worse in languages like French or German, where the "feminists" put a female form with gender-specific article next to the old one with a male grammatical gender. Now no macho captain has to suffer that a female can carry the same title, because she's not a "Kapitän", she's a "Kapitänin"! Congratulations, you've made it easy for people to be sexist.

How can I, as a male, stand up for women's equality, say that it doesn't matter in professional life, when all the time people come up with new vocabulary that cements differences? Honestly, I'm rather fed up with it.

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    Putting language usage to one side: is it not consistent to stand up for women's equality and say that it currently does matter in professional life? (descriptive rather than normative) – Yemon Choi Oct 4 '16 at 13:22
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    @YemonChoi That is not what I said. – Karl Oct 4 '16 at 13:30
  • OK, then could you clarify the last para sllightly? Sollen kein rather than es gibt kein, perhaps? – Yemon Choi Oct 4 '16 at 13:36
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    No, sorry. That sentence is perfectly clear, unless someone had a sexist predjudice about my intent. Present excluded, of course. – Karl Oct 4 '16 at 13:49
  • Linked in my answer and worth a 5 minute read. Goes to the exact heart of the argument you're putting forth here cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html – user18072 Oct 4 '16 at 15:13
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    I don't understand your last sentence either. What are you saying does not matter? What vocabulary cements what differences? How does any of that change whether you can stand up for women's equality? – user18072 Oct 4 '16 at 15:24
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    @djechlin Hofstadter. :-/ Cargo-cult scientist when he steps outside of physics. Reasoning by analogy, he's insulting everybody who is not buying into this unfounded theory of genderised language to be not only a sexist but also a racist. This is exactly what i meant with being "fed up". I will not team up with such people, however worthy the case is. – Karl Oct 4 '16 at 18:22
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    yourlogicalfallacyis.com/ad-hominem thanks for sharing your opinions though, I guess. – user18072 Oct 4 '16 at 18:28
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    @djechlin You're welcome. And thanks for trying to insult me with that website. I'm afraid the finger is pointing back at you. – Karl Oct 4 '16 at 19:00
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    I like your first two paragraphs. If you edit the rest out I'll vote this one up. – aparente001 Oct 5 '16 at 2:03

Given the increasing acceptance of "singular they," there are very few places where using a gendered term is actually necessary. Furthermore, I do think that avoiding them is good practice for an inclusive community, as otherwise we are contributing with no good reason to the still-quite-strong "men are the default" environment. Of course, when one is talking about a specific person where the gender is known, it's always appropriate to use that person's preferred pronoun.

As for how to approach is as a community: I would recommend treating unnecessary gendering just like we do blatant grammatical errors. If you notice it, edit to fix; no special criticism necessary.

Thus, if you run into a sentence like:

Somebody can told me figuring how many man-hours project need?

just change it to a better one like:

Can somebody tell me how to figure out how many person-hours a project needs?

to fix it and move on.

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    I can see this sparking edit-argument though, more than fixing other grammar. – user18072 Apr 13 '16 at 21:09
  • @djechlin Not if this meta-question ends up going in this direction... – jakebeal Apr 13 '16 at 21:13
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    I like this idea, but it does go down a rabbit hole. For example, if the question is focused on women, I am not sure we want an edit that changes "women" to "womyn". My guess is we also would have a number of users who would object to the singular usage of they and their. – StrongBad Apr 13 '16 at 21:17
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    I think this answer is taking a bigger stance than it looks. If I write a paragraph and my only mistake is he v. they, someone who doesn't feel strongly on the topic would say that doesn't affect clarity at all, whereas someone who feels strongly would say the difference is critical and the edit is not "too minor" and should be made. Whether it was an excessive edit comes down to your feelings on how important this is, which begs the question. – user18072 Apr 13 '16 at 21:18
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    And I don't think this is hypothetical... "it's just a grammar fix" isn't going to be acceptable justification for fixing a "he" to a "they" in a post that otherwise has good grammar. I think that's a serious issue with the approach of encouraging people to make gender correction edits as they see fit. – user18072 Apr 13 '16 at 21:23
  • @djechlin the point of this meta discussion it to determine if the community feels an edit of "he" to "they" or "women" to "womyn" is an acceptable edit. – StrongBad Apr 13 '16 at 22:02
  • @StrongBad I don't think we need to go down that road. "Women" is still the widely accepted term there, and that doesn't seem to be changing any time soon. If you saw somebody write "she" in an answer about a man or "he" in an answer about a woman, you'd probably correct it to the opposite term, right? Likewise, if I see somebody assume "he" about a person of unknown gender, I think it's appropriate to correct it to "they" or "he or she." Personally, I prefer "they" since it's less clunky. – jakebeal Apr 14 '16 at 10:31
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    A general note: person-time is the standard way to refer to this in epidemiology. – Fomite Apr 14 '16 at 18:35
  • The singular-they is very akward and and grammatically not even wrong. – Dilaton Apr 14 '16 at 22:14
  • What the heck is the purpose of "womyn"? It is not a real legitimate word. This looks like nonsense. – Dilaton Apr 14 '16 at 22:21
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    @Dilaton see for example: msu.edu/~womyn/alternative.html – StrongBad Apr 14 '16 at 22:29
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    @Dilaton I'm afraid you're going to have to pick a fight with everyone from Chaucer through Shakespeare and Austen over "not even wrong". Singular they is perfectly good English and always has been. – Andrew Apr 15 '16 at 12:53
  • @Andrew I know about the majestic plural that was used in the old days, it existed in the German language too... ;-). – Dilaton Apr 15 '16 at 13:47
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    Imposing your own style on others when what is written isn't blatantly offensive is vigilante justice I disapprove of. I wouldn't use man-hours (common language usage has changed much over my lifetime, and words that used to ring right, just don't anymore). However, let people speak in their own words. I would much prefer if you leave a comment, pointing objections you have out with maybe a suggested alternative spelling, encouraging action by the user. However, in the case at hand "person-hours" is simply ugly, and I loath this fairly beautiful language turning into bureaucrat-speak. – gnometorule Apr 15 '16 at 22:08
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    @gnometorule: "person-hours" is ridiculous, but "man-hours" is a very weak term. The right thing to do is express the type of practitioner whose time must be spent, and that ordinarily comes out gender neutral by default. For example, in my workplace, schedules are often based on "engineer-hours". A university department's QI project might require both faculty hours and student hours, and lumping these together in a single figure is counter-productive, regardless of whether the unit is phrased as man/woman/person/human/lifeform-hours. – Ben Voigt May 1 '16 at 6:39

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