Manned vs. Unmanned


I recently came across some interesting, but contentious discussions. The discussions started innocently enough with a question on what advances in space the scientific community wanted to see for manned flight. Among the plethora of ideas, was a simple, yet honest request to stop using the term manned flight. This resulted in the opening of Pandora’s box with arguments for and against such a change in terminology. As I read the arguments, at times rude, and dismissive of the need for this, I seriously started considering the terminology.

My personal concerns where triggered when one of the respondents to the discussion indicated how a professional woman in the scientific world in the 1970’s in a predominantly male dominated society was referred to as “unmanned”. That response affected me more than I expected. It felt offensive and degrading. I was heartened to learn that NASA had updated their terminology back in the 1970’s to use flight crew when the first women were selected to the space program and became part of the astronaut team.

What is the correct way to convey this, I pondered? Should I be more attuned to the right terminology than I already am? You see I never saw gender differences when the term manned was used. The dictionary definition of manned includes the gender neutral “person or persons”.

As commercial aviation gained momentum during the early golden age of aviation, air hostesses, or air stewardess as they were referred to then, played a vital role in welcoming passengers aboard the aircraft and ensuring passengers had a fulfilling experience. This role has since evolved to include other roles and responsibilities, and over the years, more and more men have started filling these roles. Today we automatically refer to them as flight attendant or cabin crew. No one either questions or contradicts this transition in terminology use. Just for fun, I used the Google ngram viewer that charts word frequencies over a large corpus of books to examine cultural change over the years. While the current viewer accesses literary content only till 2008, the observed trends from the charts while not definitive appear to be trending in the obvious direction.

The whole meaning of gender has been evolving over the last few decades. Why should a person’s right to bear arms be more important than a person’s right to define who they are as a person or gender of their choice? As we strive to get our youth more interested in aerospace and STEM programs, especially young women, why should we not rethink how we define our crew to be more inclusive and in harmony with the changing demographics?

Note: A version of this appears in Aviatrix Aerogram.

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