Hardhat signals work-hoursThe phrase stopped me in my tracks. “Man-hours.”

I was interviewing a client’s internal expert, a man, talking about a recent maintenance shutdown. When he mentioned how many “man-hours” were involved, I asked if his crew was all men, and he said no, there were a few women. Pointing out that I, too, was female, I asked if he would have any objection to using a gender-neutral term.

He agreed that “work-hours” (my preference) or “person-hours” (a bit awkward, I know) would be fine.

We laughed, but I was serious.

It may seem like an overreaction, especially to men, but “biased language distorts perceptions,” says Words That Count Women Out In, a publication produced by the Ontario Women’s Directorate. “When they read the words ‘man’ or ‘he,’ people of all ages tend to picture males.” It subtly suggests only males can perform certain work or hold certain jobs.

That’s why we now say police officer and firefighter, letter carrier and sales associate, flight attendant and business executive. These gender-neutral terms include the whole audience.

Why add “man” to “hours” anyway?

Other than the simple “An hour of work done by one worker” suggested by Merriam-Webster, definitions indicate that the term doesn’t just reflect 60 minutes. One formula I found was based on 10 hours per day times five working days times the number of employees on the job, with adjustments for holidays. The term also seems to cover possibilities and estimates (emphasis mine in the follow definitions):

So, okay, maybe you do need to qualify the word “hours.” But the publication I mentioned earlier? It was produced in 1993. Why am I still lobbying for other terms than “man-hour”?

Related reading:
An earlier post about inclusive language and why it’s important, also inspired by “man-hours”
An issue of my newsletter talks about inclusive language related to disabilities