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I am the only female engineer in a nearly all-male company. The term "man hours" is used a lot when discussing projects, and I find it a bit jarring. As a woman, I don't feel that I work "man hours", but I am aware it is common workplace jargon. A few times I have commented that I work "person hours" and my colleagues have laughed, or agreed with me, but the term still persists.

When I started at the company there was a culture of casual sexism, e.g., in terminology and jokes. With carefully-placed comments and lack of laughing at said jokes, I've managed to chip away at this culture (and I have a good working relationship with my colleagues).

Is this usage appropriate in the workplace (and I should accept it), or would changing it at my workplace be feasible? Is there a better term to use?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Continue it there not here please. – Lilienthal Mar 2 '17 at 8:58
  • @Brandin it's valuable, I think, to share the essay referenced by several at the question you linked: Douglas Hofstadter's "A Person Paper on Purity in Language" – LShaver Mar 6 '17 at 17:21
  • The actual term to be used is Person Hours. Man Hours is not acceptable. Even the PMI (Project management Institute) uses this term. Anything else is like weighing goods in "beer flab" (as opposed to kgs) – Vishnoo Rath Mar 7 '17 at 8:18
  • Man-hours,Human resources and a few others are terms that should be banned by default, but from different reasons. Those are terms of a slave society. – Overmind Mar 7 '17 at 10:45

13 Answers 13

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Do as you're doing; call the time period by a phrase that you're comfortable with. Maybe even use the role title - so instead of a job being x man hours, it would be 'x' hours, made up of 'y' developer hours and 'z' analyst hours.

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    +1 for accurate terminology. A 10 developer-hour project is not interchangeable with a 5 developer- hour, 5 analyst- hour project, or a 10 analyst-hour project. Units are important. – Morgen Mar 2 '17 at 2:49
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    I've seen "dev-hours" used, which as the same number of syllables as man-hours shouldn't be any less convenient. I don't know how common it is though, and software development was a minor part of the business where I heard it. "Engineer-hours" was moderately common – Chris H Mar 2 '17 at 9:08
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    @ChrisH We usually use dev-days (often "ideal dev-days"), with fractions, rather than hours. – Yakk Mar 2 '17 at 14:34
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    I really like this because you're not just relying on the coworkers' recognition of unconscious linguistic sexism (it sounds like they wouldn't be super interested in that), but instead replacing the term with one that's more useful even to them. Plus, it reinforces that the OP is an important member of the team. She's not just some random person of the street, she's a developer within the engineering team. – yshavit Mar 3 '17 at 14:55
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    Dev-{hours,days} is good. I wouldn't balk at this. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 3 '17 at 17:31
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I'm a female engineer who has worked in male-only teams for many years and heard words like "man-hours" many times. Among the great answers here, I don't see my view on this represented, so perhaps I can add something more.

Is this usage appropriate in the workplace (and I should accept it), or would changing it at my workplace be feasible? Is there a better term to use?

In the first year of working, I learned a very important lesson. If you do good work, it doesn't matter what gender you are, you will be respected. It begins and ends with the quality of your work and your attitude while doing it.

With the above in mind, there is no need to draw attention to your gender. It doesn't matter if you're male, female, or non-binary. I don't draw attention to my gender because it shouldn't play a role at all in my work life.

I do not wish to be treated specially (good or bad) due to my gender being different, so I don't want to draw attention to it, and I don't want to draw other people's attention to it.

So, going back to this:

would changing it at my workplace be feasible?

You would be asking people to pay attention to the fact that you're female, and treat you differently because of it (changing the words they use). This is something I personally wouldn't do.

There have been times where people have said "woman-hours" instead of "man-hours" for me, and I specifically don't like it when they do that. I usually say "no need for that, really!" in a joking kind of way. Why? because I prefer being treated like everyone else. And if everyone else gets "man-hours" then I should too.

I don't want the people on my team to think twice when they talk to me. I want them to be comfortable. I don't want them to walk on eggshells and feel like they could offend me at any moment. I'm here to work, not make them uncomfortable or make their lives difficult.

The majority of the men I've worked with have been absolute gentlemen toward me. I have been respected and treated very well on the teams I have worked on. I understand that some women have not had as good an experience as I have in the past.

If you are not being treated well, or respected on a human level, then there's nothing wrong with raising an issue and talking about it. I don't mean to let people walk over you and say what they want to you. My point, rather, is that this is just a matter of semantics rather than anything else, and that I personally would just let this go and appreciate that you are being treated the same as everyone else.

EDIT:

A couple of people have indicated concerns about this view being too passive and just accepting male terms as default.

I agree that words are important. I agree that ideally words should be changed. There is nothing wrong with advocating the change of language. My argument here is to say that actions are more effective than words. A man can say "man-hours" and it has no indication of his view of women, sexist or otherwise. English evolved over centuries and it's not going to change overnight any time soon (there's nothing wrong with trying to change it, though).

The real trouble isn't with the words, it's with the mindset that women are inferior. That they aren't clever enough to be engineers and do good jobs, that they have only specific roles in society to fill. Now obviously not all people feel this way, but some do. And if you show that you are a good engineer, that your gender does not affect your work standard at all, then that is much more effective than changing how people address you.

So there is nothing wrong with switching terms and using another word yourself. However, if you want to change others, your actions are going to be a much more effective influence on their mindset than asking them to use a different word.

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    This answer is a lighthouse in a dark ocean. It should be mandatory reading for all undergraduate programs. – Wesley Long Mar 3 '17 at 15:41
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    I feel this is the perfect answer. Many people are extremely jumpy about their gender/religion/political views, but none of this should matter in the workplace. Getting picky about semantics only brings a gender equality issue in a context where it should not be. – BgrWorker Mar 3 '17 at 16:54
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    I have mixed feelings about this answer. In particular, the statement: "You would be asking people to pay attention to the fact that you're female, and treat you differently because of it (changing the words they use). This is something I personally wouldn't do". Sometimes people SHOULD change the words they use REGARDLESS of who is around. Whether the phrase "man hours" should be changed and whether it matters enough to you to push that change is, however, is outside the scope of this comment. – bytesized Mar 3 '17 at 17:32
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    @Era Does there need to be? Anecdotal experiences of a single individual power most of the answers on this site due to the nature of the questions. Are you asking stanri to cite some reference to prove that she's not lying about how she feels about it? – Jason C Mar 4 '17 at 2:03
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    @Era there's at least 218 other individuals who agree – immibis Mar 5 '17 at 22:21
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Don't chastise anyone for using "man-hours", it's an ingrained part of traditional English usage.

Continue to use "person-hours" whenever possible. The laughing will eventually subside.

Attitudes and language often change together, and always change slowly. The best metaphor for your efforts should be: orthodontists do not straighten teeth with a hammer.

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    @bharal, if someone just uses the term "person-hours" in all communications they write or speak, no one can take offense. Trying to force everyone else to use a different term from what they're using ("man-hour") is just obnoxious and over-controlling. If you take offense at a standard English word, that's your sorry luck; if you personally choose to use a different, equally communicative word and hope it catches on, wonderful. There's a big difference. – Wildcard Mar 2 '17 at 5:19
  • @Wildcard: +1, you should make it an answer – ya23 Mar 2 '17 at 14:12
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    According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man-Month (Fred Brooks) the term is mythical anyway. – A. I. Breveleri Mar 2 '17 at 17:31
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    I prefer the term staff-hours – HLGEM Mar 2 '17 at 23:11
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    "FTE" for "Full-time equivalent" works too – John Walthour Mar 3 '17 at 17:14
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"Man hours" is a unit for an amount of work done, measured in such a way that (a) it's easy to determine how many units a person can do in a week, and (b) it's easy to determine the cost of the people doing the work.

So yes, you do produce "man hours" of work. You could also say that you produce "woman hours" of work, and that all the men in your team produce "woman hours" of work.

I don't think you should feel sensitive to the term. Now if your man hours are valued less than other people's man hours because of your gender, or if you get paid less per man hour than someone else because of your gender, now that is something that you should feel very sensitive about.

Or look at it this way: Clearly by using the same term "man hour" whether it's a man's work or a woman's work it is accepted that each person's work has the same value.

(And for tactical reasons, it's a battle you should avoid: Nobody is trying to imply anything negative about you by using the term "man hours", so if you complain about that then you waste energy that you need for fights that really count. And you upset people whose support you would want when it counts).

Edit: Apparently I got downvotes because of the advice to avoid this battle, because "you are allowed to fight this battle". It's up to you, but consider: This term is used without any intent of being sexist. Complaining will upset decent people and will damage your reputation with them. These are people who would stand up for you as your colleagues if they witnessed some real sexist action against you. Upset them, and they might not. In any situation, choose your battles and pick the ones worth fighting.

And standing up for yourself and picking the wrong battles will not win you respect.

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    eh i disagree - hence the downvote. OP is allowed to fight this battle ~ i don't think it is a tactical issue. Also, as a man, I would not ever say I produce "woman hours" of anything. So it seems fair that OP might disagree with making "man hours". ymmv, but language is just as important a battle to fight as the outcome of biased language (in your case you highlight a wage disparity) – bharal Mar 2 '17 at 2:30
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    @bharal You don't want to appear like an overly sensitive prude that causes your colleagues to shun you and keep you out of loop of things. And it's not necessarily because they started disliking you, but because they no longer feel comfortable talking casually with you in case you report them for something they did not realise was offensive. So I'd say the risk is losing important backers and allies and the reward being only the terminology is changed. Overall, being overly sensitive of the term 'man hours' is like trying to change 'history' into 'herstory'. – A. Lau Mar 2 '17 at 6:10
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    @DavidWallace I wonder if you'd still have that extra respect for it after having a chat with HR about something completely harmless you said. – Erik Mar 2 '17 at 7:20
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    @DavidWallace A problem with it is that it's a standard term. It's not some specific culture in this one workplace. "Man hours" is generally a way to measure the amount of time one worker would spend doing the task. It would be somewhat weird for someone to start a battle over it. It's like trying to get all your colleagues to stop using "Kleenex" because your office buys off brand facial tissues. Male pronouns are traditionally also used for gender neutral. Sexist attitudes are worth fighting. Differing word choice isn't as smart to fight, it's all opinions. – JMac Mar 2 '17 at 10:44
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    @DavidWallace This has nothing to do with standing up for themselves though. I applaud the OP for attacking sexism within her workplace - absolutely, that should not be allowed to pass. But the phrase "man-hours" is not sexist, because it does not relate to "man" as a gender. Deliberately misinterpreting it as sexist is actively offensive. – Graham Mar 2 '17 at 14:18
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There is nothing wrong with using the term man-hours.

Although it does have the word "man" in it it is definitely not geared in any way shape or form towards any sort of gender bias.

If the term somehow offends you instead of using "man-hours" just use the term "hours".

Some of the other answers provide options that may be more suitable for you as well.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal Mar 3 '17 at 11:27
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    Indeed. "Man" in this context means "human", as it historically always did. In fact, now only women get the special word "woman", whereas weremen (yes, that's the word!) have to now slum it along with everyone else in the catch-all "man". If someone's reading "oh, this means only males" into the term then frankly that's their own biases showing, IMO! #onlyhalfjoking – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 3 '17 at 17:32
  • Kind of like "dude" or "guy". – TheWanderer Mar 6 '17 at 0:05
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In my workplace of software engineers we use the term 'engineer hours'. I find this term less awkward to my ear than 'person hours'. We also sometimes say 'development hours' in reference to software development and I imagine similar phrasing could be used in other industries.

This wording in my work place seems to have come into place naturally. I have never received any training specifying the gender neutral phrasing is preferred.

As an alternative, my wife works as a civil engineer in a male-dominated workplace, and they generally use the term 'staff days' when referring to time frames.

In conclusion I think it is well worth it to try to change the language used by your co-workers, as long as you know it may be very slow. And it may be worth trying a few phrasings to find one that your co-workers do not find snicker worthy.

  • Thanks for your answer. I'm going to try and use "engineer hours" as I like the idea of using the job role. I appreciate the change is going to happen slowly but that doesn't put me off. It's good to know other people do this too :-) – Tempest16 Mar 3 '17 at 22:10
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The word “man” does not just refer to males. In several contexts, it refers to a person (or people) without gender qualification. This is quite clear from the first three descriptions on wiktionary (in fact, nr 4, 5, and 6 are also gender-neutral):

man (plural men)

  1. An adult male human. - The show is especially popular with middle-aged men.‎
  2. (collective) All human males collectively: mankind.
  3. A human, a person of either gender, usually an adult. - every man for himself‎

Similarly, the term “man hour” is a normal part of English and is widely acknowledged to mean a unit of work performed in one hour by a person - without gender qualification.

Answering your question,

Is the term “man hours” appropriate for the workplace, and if not, how do I get my coworkers to use a more neutral term?

Yes, the term “man hours” is gender-neutral, and appropriate for the workplace.

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    I have always been of the understanding that "man" is being used as a contraction of the word "human" in contexts like this. Compare "mankind". – This isn't my real name Mar 3 '17 at 15:20
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    It sounds like you're assuming that people who believe man hours is sexist have just failed to realize that English sometimes uses masculine pronouns to refer to all genders, and if they only had that fact explained to them, then they'd realize that it's simply a meaningless quirk of the language, and therefore not sexist. I don't think that's actually what's going on here. Everybody knows that's how English works, but the deeper questions are, why does it work that way? What impact does it have on people when its used that way? – Ian Dunn Mar 5 '17 at 16:53
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    @Thisisn'tmyrealname: Well, it would be factually false to say that "man" in "man hours" (or in "mankind") originated as a contraction of "human" (you can look up the derivations of these words in a dictionary, and they're entirely unrelated), but I suppose you're free to analyze the term that way now that it exists. – sumelic Mar 5 '17 at 17:09
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Work hours

It is already in wide use, especially when talking about contracts. It also fits other units of time like weeks: work week. There is no man weeks, or at least I have not heard of such.

Man hour is appropriate because of its history. Man is a synonym for worker in many jobs like soldiers and other physical labor; and to engineers and business men. While the use might create some mental barriers for some, I would say that promoting other words is better than making a confrontation. Many have more meaningful business to do, and will only be annoyed if there is some HR organised workshops about promoting diversity in their every day terminology.

Promoting can be done by talking to close people. You can easily get your team to change a term. Maybe once actually asking people if they would be so kind and take your feelings into consideration. That could be done after the alternative word has already spread to maximize its effect. If some already use the alternative, the small minding of word choice will be more efficient. They will slip and use of man-hour term will stick for long. These cases should not be attacked, because that just annoys them similarly to Grammar Nazis. It will be a slow change.

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    Man-hours are different to working-hours. A man hour is how much work can be done by one person in one hour - a team of 10 people can perform 80 man-hours of work in a day. Working hours means the time period of the working day (9am-5pm would be 8 working hours, regardless of how many people are working). – Snow Mar 2 '17 at 7:44
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    True, working hour removed from the answer. Work hour I have seen in the same use as a man hour. – user3644640 Mar 2 '17 at 7:48
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    There are a few more advantages to "Work Hours" than any other term - same number of syllables, completely neutral, emphasizes the work done over the individual doing it, and already a common term in several industries (I rarely actually hear anyone call it 'man hours' outside of engineering). – Zibbobz Mar 2 '17 at 13:57
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    If someone told me a project requires 12 work months, I would be convinced it cannot be done before next year. 12 man-months (or person-months, worker-months etc.) clearly imply the time has to be divided by the number of people on the team. – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 3 '17 at 11:04
  • @DmitryGrigoryev I agree, month is not used often. Although I do know many cases where the contracts are done on a resolution of a month. In a such case it makes sense to talk about work months. The word work seems in the example you give a redundant word, if there is no seasonality where there are indeed the months during which work is made only on-season. – user3644640 Mar 3 '17 at 12:16
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Without getting into a debate about whether the term should be considered offensive, the term man hours is a foolish one. Read 'the mythical man month', which points out the issues with the term man-hour better than I can.

The term 'FTE' is used to represent one full time worker, focused on the project.

If I say it will take 2 FTE for 10 day to move all of these heavy boxes, you know that it will take 10 days, and occupy 2 people. If I say it is 160 man hours, you will either send 20 people for 1 day, and they will form a bottleneck at the door, or you will send 1 person for 20 days, and they will then need to see a doctor about their bad back.

It might take a week for a crew of 100 to make a journey in a submarine. Drop that number to 90 and it still takes a week because the bottleneck is the engines. Drop the crew to 50 and instead of taking 2 weeks, you end up with a nuclear explosion.

Stating a project's man hours leads people to think that this is a constant. It is not, adding more workers can lead to additional man hours to co-ordinate, or there may be bottlenecks other than personel. But some tasks are much quicker if multiple people are working on them. Some are impossible without a certain number of people.

When you acknowledge the myth of the man-month, FTE is much more natural:

"X FTE for y time"

rather than

"x man hours which requires y people to complete"

If you try to convince people to use any variant of man-hour, you will likely fail. Sorry, that's just the way it is. Try to move people towards using FTE based on it being a better way to consider projects, and you get the added bonus of removing sexist language.

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    Remnds me of 2 FTE women in 4.5 months to deliver a baby! – Vishnoo Rath Mar 7 '17 at 8:26
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My advice would be to be very careful with units, if you want to be concise. Many answers here advocate alternative names (simply "Hours", "Work Hours" etc.) which IMO is a terrible idea, since those will inevitably get mistaken for units of time, not workload. Person-hour is acceptable, although man-hour is a standard at the time of writing. Imagine a physicist who desides to measure radiation in Sklodowska instead of Curie because they think that physical units are all named after man, and having one womanly unit wouldn't hurt. How clear such works would be to other physicists?

I agree that name is biased, but you have to pick your fights carefully: every time you tell people the term they use is gender-biased, they hear that they are gender-biased themselves, making them uncomfortable. You may want to save your remarks for cases where you think your colleagues are doing something genuinely sexist, and not just using the standard name of a workload unit. Of course, you are free to use person-hour yourself.

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    A man lectures a woman on making sure men aren't offended by thinking about gender bias in the workplace. – user42272 Mar 3 '17 at 14:46
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    @djechlin You failed to read the first paragraph, didn't you? – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 3 '17 at 14:50
  • Nope! I sure didn't. – user42272 Mar 3 '17 at 14:52
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    You might've failed to read the second, however: "... every time you tell people the term they use ..." – mcalex Mar 4 '17 at 11:07
  • Of course some universities censure for using "chairperson" for a female chair, and others for using "chairman" or "chairwoman" so this is a good answer. It is a "species" specific term. – mckenzm Jan 18 '18 at 2:29
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The term "man-hours" is a somewhat antiquated and it does carry some baggage but you shouldn't take too much offense. The continued use of it is really not any more sexist than the term "manhole". Can a woman go into a manhole and does she feel less welcome in the sewer because of the name of the entrance?

That said, this is being replaced over time. You could advocate something more specific based on the kind of work. If you are in software, you can use terms 'developer-hours' or 'dev-hours' vs 'arch-hours' to distinguish the kind of work.

Another option is to change to 'days' and while you are at it call them 'person-days'. 'Man-days' sounds strange. It's really hard to measure how many hours of work a given person has put in. One man's hour might not accomplish as much as given woman's hour, for example. On the other hand, there is no ambiguity around when a day has passed and how many days are left until a deadline arrives.

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You've gotten a lot of opinions on whether or not the term is appropriate, but very little input on the second, perhaps more important part of your question:

How do I get my coworkers to use a more neutral term?

I am not a woman, I've worked in offices with a lot of casual sexism, seen effective strategies implemented to reduce it, and spoken at length with female colleagues about these efforts and their experiences. Here are a few tactics I've seen work well:

Just ask your colleagues to use a different term. If you don't mind speaking up and you believe that they are well-meaning but have never considered the gendered nature of the term, this is the simplest solution. You can be courteous but clear. In my experience, it's most productive to avoid an argument or the appearance of judgement, and phrase it as a request, eg "I know you don't mean it this way, but that term makes my contribution feel undervalued. Could you please use an alternative?" Personally, I appreciate it when my colleagues are straightforward with me in this way.

Use of another term in response. When someone talks about "man-hours", respond to them by using "person-hours", "worker-hours", "woman-hours", whatever. This will communicate your preference while minimizing the chance of a confrontation. The pointedness and speed with which you respond is up to you; a more immediate response communicates more clearly, but may be taken as a passive-aggressiveness, which can backfire. It sounds like you've been employing this strategy already- if it's working, keep it up!

Enlist a male coworker you trust, either to help you with the above or to make the request on your behalf to the other guys. Unfortunately, some men are more likely to take opinions or inputs seriously when they come from another man. I've seen this approach used successfully a few times, but I also know that a few of the women involved felt that having to do this was disempowering.

Talk to management or HR. I have on one occasion seen management stage an incredibly productive intervention in a case of gender discrimination at the woman's request, but the issue involved was much more egregious. I think this is unlikely to be fruitful and may be counterproductive, unless this issue is part of a broad pattern of discrimination or somehow escalates to become a bigger problem.

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    Downvoted for the reasons I describe in this comment. – Wildcard Mar 2 '17 at 5:21
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    Sorry, but I just don't believe these tactics will do any good, and possibly they will alienate people instead of convincing them. This answer seems like a more effective and less risky method. – user30031 Mar 2 '17 at 5:36
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    Downvoted. The lack of traction in the second thing follows directly from the broken assumption of the first thing. Tossing in the self-aggrandizing term "reduce casual sexism in the workplace alongside my female colleagues" does not change the brokenness of the assumption. There are enough real instances of casual sexism in the workplace out there, that nonsensical gestures like this only detract from reducing the real instances. – smci Mar 2 '17 at 9:57
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    I'm surprised at the reaction to this answer- I don't think I'm advocating trying to force anything or alienate people. My first suggestion is literally "just ask", and my second suggestion is very close to the two topvoted answers. You are all entitled to your opinions, but I stand by this answer- as I say, it's based on real experience, not just speculation. – Joe Mar 2 '17 at 14:24
  • 3rd is kinda a good suggestion in that it's saying "get the friendliest person to support you first instead of the least friendly. – user42272 Mar 3 '17 at 14:47
-8

Use Ideal Hours.

Not only is this gender neutral, it also conveys a key additional concept: the hours that a task will actually take are not the same as the hours you estimate. Estimates are normally based on elapsed-time-on-task (effort), but your project project schedule needs to also factor in overheads (daily meetings, interruptions, leave etc...) to determine actual calendar hours. If estimating at lower levels of granularity, just use Ideal Days etc...

(Agile crowd would also suggest Story Points but I think this gets a bit too abstract personally)

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    Story Points are NOT interchangable with hours. It'd be like exchanging pounds for liters; they do not measure the same kind of thing. – Erik Mar 2 '17 at 7:22
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    Story points are specifically designed to not be easily converted to hours. – Mister Positive Mar 2 '17 at 15:27
  • -1 - I would like to see some reference or citation to back up this usage, and I suspect it is not a correct answer anyway. – EleventhDoctor Mar 4 '17 at 13:35

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