Is there a non-gendered term for manning a station, as in manning the desk? The only ideas I can come up with are "stationed at" the desk or other clunky things. Finding the right gerund would make my day.
"tend"; "tend to"; "tending"; “tending to”; "attend"; "attending to" ... the station/desk/store/shop/bar, etc.
1. Care for or look after; give one’s attention to: [with object] “Viola tended plants on the roof”; [no object] “for two or three months he tended to business”
1.1. US Direct or manage; work in. “I’ve been tending bar at the airport lounge”
1.2. archaic Wait on as an attendant or servant.
tend v.tr.: 1. To have the care of; watch over; look after: tend a child. 2. To manage the activities and transactions of; run: tend bar; tend a store in the owner's absence.
Synonyms: tend (2), attend, mind, minister, watch: These verbs mean to have the care or supervision of something: tended her plants; attends the sick; minded the neighbor's children; ministered to flood victims; watched the house while the owners were away.
tend to v.: To apply one's attention to something; attend to something: I must tend to my chores before I can go outside.
tend (v.1) "to incline, to move in a certain direction," early 14c., from Old French tendre "stretch out, hold forth, hand over, offer" (11c.), from Latin tendere "to stretch, extend, make tense; aim, direct; direct oneself, hold a course" (see tenet).
tend (v.2) "attend to," c. 1200, a shortening of Middle English atenden (see attend).
1. To be present, as at a scheduled event. 2. To take care; give attention: We'll attend to that problem later. 3. To apply or direct oneself; take action: attended to their business. 4. To pay attention: attended disinterestedly to the debate. 5. To remain ready to serve; wait.
attend (v.) c. 1300, "to direct one's mind or energies," from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) "to expect, wait for, pay attention," and directly from Latin attendere "give heed to," literally "to stretch toward," from ad- "to" (see ad-) + tendere "stretch" (see tenet). The notion is of "stretching" one's mind toward something. Sense of "take care of, wait upon" is from early 14c. Meaning "to pay attention" is early 15c.; that of "to be in attendance" is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.
man (v.) Old English mannian "to furnish (a fort, ship, etc.) with a company of men," from man (n.). Meaning "to take up a designated position on a ship" is first recorded 1690s. Meaning "behave like a man, act with courage" is from c. 1400. To man (something) out is from 1660s. Related: Manned; manning.
The search for a non-gendered terminology is a worthy quest. Where suitable, gender neutral terms are available but under-employed, using them enhances their currency and furthers that quest. Like any other human endeavor, neutering gendered terms can be taken to extremes and become rather counter-productive (manhole=personhole; man-eater=person-eater), but that is not the case here.
A note on the neutrality of "manning":
"Manning" is (or at least has been) gender-neutral. Only in recent history has "man" taken on a gendered connotation. Before, "wer" was a prefix that meant male (as used in "werewolf"), and "wif" meant female (which eventually led to the word "woman" from "wifman"). The use of "man" as gender-neutral appears today in the words "mankind," "human," and of course "manning." Therefore, "manning" is a suitable gender-neutral term.
However, if you still want an alternative, "tending" or even "working" would work. For example, "manning the help desk" vs. "tending the help desk" (though it sounds strange) or "manning the register" vs. "working the register."
"Covering" is often used by my wife (a registered nurse) in exactly the way of "manning the help desk" in that it denotes responsibility without implying specific activity.
One issue this question raises is that of being more precise in thinking about who is doing what. "Manning the help desk" for instance often refers to a rotating role where a group of people share a responsibility in turn. This is somewhat different than what would have been meant by "manning the USS Enterprise". In that context "covering", "working", "attending" may all have an appropriate use.
If they're taking care of things at X, you could say they're 'handling X today' or 'will be handling X'.
Although it specifically refers tot he act of holding or moving something with your hands, it can also mean keeping an activity under control, or doing a task that needs to be done.
Depending on the exact nature of the duty: "guarding", "watching", "minding", "running", but they each suggest something more specific and active than is required by "manning", which just means to turn up and be there.
"Occupying" is close to a synonym, but slightly suggests that you aren't merely present, you're preventing someone else from occupying the same desk.
"Tending" is most commonly used for bars, not desks, but you might make it work.
"Staffing" can mean "to do the duty", or "to ensure someone's on it, not necessarily yourself", or "to provide staff". So it has an appropriate meaning but is potentially more general. As far as I know it's nevertheless the "standard" alternative in this context.
Instead of a "manned mission" or "manning a station" please consider a "crewed mission" or "crewing a station". The Navy has an interesting expression if you want to tell some to "man their station and get to work." You tell them to "Turn to, Shipmate." I suppose you could to tell someone to "work your station."
Please watch the desk.
Cover the desk.
Keep an eye on the desk.
Can you work reception?
Will you handle the phones?
Grab those calls, would ya?
Can you cover reception, monitor the phones, and make sure everything runs smoothly?
There are thousands of different things you could say to avoid the term "man," depending upon the context you're facing. That being said, if "manning" is the perfect and precise word, you should use "manning."
In UK military parlance, for completely different reasons, UAVs are 'Uninhabited air vehicles' rather than 'unmanned air vehicles'. Though saying someone 'inhabits' a desk would be rather strange.
'unmanned' traditionally meant 'cowardly' (see the phrase unmanned by fear) rather than the opposite of manned.
What are they doing at the desk? Maybe you can describe their job (e.g. "answering the phone" or whatever) rather than that they're simply occupying the desk.
If their job is mostly just to be there, maybe say "holding the fort".
Fig. to take care of a place while someone who is usually there is gone, such as a store or one's home. (From western movies.) I'm going next door to visit Mrs. Jones. You stay here and hold the fort. You should open the store at eight o'clock and hold the fort until I get there at ten.
Maybe this is just an American idiom, I don't know.
If it's the fact that it's a desk that's important, there's an idiom about being a "desk jockey" you could work into the sentence (instead of implying something about being a "desk man").