After researching this article, I thought for a long time about how to approach it. Gender-sensitive language, the so-called “gender”, is a current and seemingly emotionally charged topic in many administrations and organizations. Among the population, opinions about the purpose or absurdity vary widely. The debate is often very heated at times. In this article I would like to show you some reasons why it can make sense to mention all genders and what possibilities there are for doing so.

The Public Sector Sees a Need For Action

The Basic Law states in article 3, paragraph 2: “Men and women are equal. The state shall promote the effective implementation of equal rights for women and men and shall work to eliminate existing discrimination”. Despite this declaration of intent, in our society there are still inequalities between the genders. Women do not choose certain professions for which they would be just as suitable as men. In some cases, there is still a significant difference in pay for the same aptitude. And there are fewer women than men in the executive ranks of administrations and businesses. Is this mainly due to the language?

Certainly not, but our daily use of language makes it clear where our historically grown focus lies or has been. Since the late seventies, discussion about this issue has been sparked, which is now beginning to have an impact: In the administrations of cities, federal states and universities, the so-called “generic masculine” is increasingly being removed from the written language. The term means that the masculine form of words is still used for mixed-gender groups. Here in Kiel, too, in December 2018, the city council gave the city mayor a mandate to “introduce a gender-neutral administrative language in the state capital of Kiel by the end of 2019”.

In everyday life, too: “Included” does not necessarily mean “thought of”.

So why might it make sense to use gender-sensitive language in everyday life? There are studies that conclude that there is an interaction between language and the perception of the world. Less thought is also given to something that does not appear in language. We have this situation because of the generic masculinity in the German language. But the female form is always meant. Some examples are “the citizens”, “the voters” or “the surgeon”. Girls and women who are meant in this way appear less in the imagination of other people. People want to be addressed, seen, and represented. This does not happen with the generic masculine. If both genders are mentioned, this expands the world of perception of everyone and thus apparently also the open-mindedness. People become more daring then and feel seen.

There is a story that illustrates the problem with the misleading naming of people by the generic masculine: “Father and son are driving a car and are involved in a serious car accident. The father dies on the way to hospital. The son is driven to the emergency operating room, where the surgeons on duty are already waiting.

But when they lean over the boy, one of the surgeons says in a terrified voice: “I can’t operate – this is my son! Many people then have the impression that there is something wrong with the story: How can the father suddenly be in the operating room, when he is dead? The solution is relatively simple: the “surgeon” at the operating table is the boy’s mother. Because a male term was used for the female doctor (German: male surgeon-Chirurg, female-Chirurgin), many people think that it is a man.

Another example is the situation that in a group of people there are mainly women, but nevertheless the male form is used to designate the participants: In a lecture on a surgical topic there are 20 people in the room, 18 women and two men. If a headline now states that “20 surgeons attended the lecture event”, the women, who were clearly in the majority, simply drop out linguistically. If someone reads the headline, this already creates a false picture of what really happened there.

These two situations are certainly not catastrophic, but they do illustrate that the generic masculine can distort perception and that the citizens of this country often simply do not show up linguistically even though they were present or involved. That need not be the case.

What are the possibilities of gender-inclusive language?

There are many different approaches. Here it is important to be a little creative and choose the variant that suits your own text. This is certainly also a question of taste.

If both genders are represented in a group of people, both can be named, for example readers or students (in German: Leserinnen und Leser oder Studentinnen und Studenten). Or the question of gender can be circumvented with a neutral term, for example reader, student, firefighter, or specialist. There are also different kinds of short forms like the gender asterisk or the gender space, examples are readers, students or readers and students (in German: Leser*innen, Student*innen oder Leser_innen und Student_innen). Other short forms are based on a slash, the so-called inner-I or a bracket, for example readers, students, readers, students or readers and students (in German:Leser/innen, Student/innen, LeserInnen, StudentInnen oder Leser(in) und Student(in) ). Perhaps you are not sure how these short forms are pronounced? You should pause briefly at the point where the special characters appear.

Another dimension is added to the topic by people who cannot or do not want to classify themselves clearly as male or female. This part of the population wants to be represented in the language and in the consciousness of the people. Currently, the gender asterisk and similar variants are mainly used, neutral forms such as “firefighters” also represent other genders.

Changes are often connected with a great deal of effort – even if it involves rethinking old habits. Language should, as far as possible, be unmistakable and precise. This could provide a further basis for reducing imbalances between the genders, so that everyone can interact at the same level. In addition to speaking and writing, actions are of course also necessary. Language is only a preliminary stage of change.

Dare to find your own way, whether you want to be gendered or not. The choice is yours.

If you would like more information on gender-appropriate language, I recommend

  • – Project of the journalist internal federation with Tipps
  • – Online dictionary with gender-appropriate word alternatives
  • “Gendering – Very Simple!”(Gendern – Ganz einfach!) – Book by Anja Steinhauer and Gabriele Diewald with a short introduction and many tips (Duden Verlag)

Autor: Thorsten Panknin
Layout/Illustrationen: Rebecca Freyer