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FAA committee recommends shifting to gender-neutral language

Members of the Drone Advisory Committee said the change could improve safety and diversity in the industry

The Federal Aviation Administration building in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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An advisory committee said Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration should replace words and phrases such as “cockpit,” “unmanned aviation” and “man-made” with gender-neutral terms such as “flight deck,” “uncrewed aviation” and “machine-made,” part of an effort to create a more welcoming environment.

The recommendations, part of a report released Wednesday by the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, are a recognition that as society evolves, so should the industry and the language it traditionally has used, committee members said. In addition to recommending alternatives to standard terms, the committee also offered advice on how the FAA and industry could adopt them.

“As it grows and matures, the drone industry has an opportunity to use and embrace gender-neutral language that defines it as an industry that is respectful, welcoming, and brings value to the receiver,” the committee said in its report. “Research shows that the utilization of general-neutral language can lead to a more inclusive environment that draws more people to the industry and helps keep them there.”

In February, the advisory committee — a group that includes representatives from 17 organizations in industry, labor, airports and local government — was tasked with developing language to replace commonly used gender-specific words. The goal was to reshape language used in the drone industry in hopes that it would influence terms and phrases in the broader aviation community.

In making their case, committee members argued that such a shift could improve morale and safety because it would signal that all viewpoints are welcome.

“Avoiding imprecise and exclusionary language can create a work environment where all workers feel safe sharing their views, thereby improving psychological and operational safety,” the report said.

The report cited several studies that showed language can affect an employee’s willingness to work in certain industries or remain in positions in industries where they are in the minority.

While the report represents the work of one FAA committee, its members said it can serve as an example for the wider community.

“This is really bigger than just the drone industry,” said Trish Gilbert, a committee member and executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The entire aviation community, we believe, is watching.”

The committee proposed several substitutions for commonly used terms.

For “man-made,” it suggested “manufactured,” “fabricated” or “machine-made.” It also suggested replacing “cockpit” with “flight deck,” noting that male crew members have sometimes “wielded the term to undermine femme co-workers.” In the case of “manned aviation,” the committee suggested “traditional aviation.”

Other government agencies already have made a shift to gender-neutral terms. In 2006, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration updated its style guide to urge that references to the space program be non-gender specific. An example: “piloted” or “unpiloted” rather than “manned” and “unmanned.”

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Experts say such changes are important first steps but must be followed by other efforts to recruit, train and retain a diverse workforce.

“Simply changing the language won’t ensure the diverse workforce, but not changing the language will certainly give the impression that a diverse workforce is not what they’re going for,” said Christine Mallinson, director of the Center for Social Science Scholarship and professor in the language, literacy and culture program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

Mallinson said that while some might bristle at such efforts, it’s important to remember that language is evolving and words matter.

“Language is not arbitrary,” she said. “Language is a social behavior, and people who have a measure of power are invested in that. They might not always see how what seems normal to them is a function of their privileged status.”

Deputy FAA Administrator Bradley Mims said the agency will review the committee’s recommendation.

“Implementing gender-neutral language into the aviation community is an important step towards achieving diversity and inclusion in the workforce,” he said.

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