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Are engineering labels politically incorrect?

Engineering, the last bastion of political incorrectness (or so we thought) has been violated. A discrimination complaint has been filed with the Los Angeles County’s Office of Affirmative Action Compliance. The offense: possessing video equipment with the labels “master” and “slave.”

County officials have asked that manufacturers, suppliers and contractors of electronic devices to stop using the terms “master” and “slave” on equipment, saying such terms are unacceptable and offensive. The terms “master” and “slave” are used to refer to primary and secondary hard disk drives on computer-based equipment. The terms are also used in other industries.

The request has some suppliers furious and others busy re-labeling components. “Based on the cultural diversity and sensitivity of Los Angeles County, this is not an acceptable identification label,” Joe Sandoval, division manager of purchasing and contract services, said in a memo sent to county vendors.

“We would request that each manufacturer, supplier and contractor review, identify and remove/change any identification or labeling of equipment components that could be interpreted as discriminatory or offensive in nature,” Sandoval said in the memo, which was distributed last week and made public in a report by Reuters.

The memo did not include any suggestions for alternate labels.

Dennis Tafoya, director of the affirmative action office, said in a separate memo that an “exhaustive search” had been undertaken to find all such labels and replace them with more “appropriate” ones. A form was sent to all departments to identify equipment carrying the labels “master” and “slave” or any other offensive terms.

Faced with an avalanche of complaints from vendors and the general public, Sandoval told Reuters in an interview that his memo was intended as “nothing more than a request” and not an ultimatum or policy change.

“I do understand that this term has been an industry standard for years and years, and this is nothing more than a plea to vendors to see what they can do,” he said. “It appears that some folks have taken this a little too literally.”

Sandoval said that he had already rejected a suggestion that the county stop buying all equipment carrying the “master” and “slave” labels and had no intention of enforcing a ban on such terms with suppliers.

“But we are culturally sensitive and we have 90,000 employees,” he said. “We have to take these things seriously.”

Sandoval added that in addition to the negative e-mails he’s received, he has also gotten a positive response from some companies willing to re-examine their labels.

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