Why should we gender?

Dear Readers,

I could also say dear readers: inside or perhaps dear readers?

Or how about: dear readers? Or perhaps it would be better to say: dear audience?

You can already see here that the German language basically has a great many formal possibilities for speaking and writing in a gender-appropriate way. Some of them are very bulky, and can be very annoying. Other formulations, on the other hand, are quite smooth and fit wonderfully and unnoticeably into the flow of the sentence. Doing this well is difficult, and in general, the issue of gender-sensitive language is a very complex one.

With this article, I would like to shed some light on the subject: I invite you to join me in examining the topic of gender-equitable language from different perspectives. Maybe you are skeptical about the topic? Then I would like to explain why I think the use of gender-appropriate language is important.

Perhaps you are unsure about how best to speak and write in a gender-appropriate way, as well as what the right measure is? Then I would like to support you with this lecture and give you a few guidelines.

Well, I know that the topic is very controversial, perhaps even dividing society. This is despite the fact that advocates want language to be fair and inclusive. After all, the basic idea behind the demand for fair language is the equal treatment of all genders with regard to personal names.

You’ve probably also noticed that, just recently, quite a few of the opinion-forming media outlets have featured gendered language as their cover story. These triggered veritable floods of reactions.

The revived debate was prompted by the fact that the Duden editorial team announced at the beginning of the year that it intended to include more than 12,000 personal and professional terms with both feminine and masculine forms.

Do you know why I was quite surprised by all this? I thought to myself: Wow ? Surely the topic was hotly debated when I was a student, or even in the early 80s, and still we are so far from the point of this form of language gaining social acceptance? Why don’t at least the majority of women now speak in a gender-appropriate way? An exciting question, isn’t it? Is it because it’s too strenuous, too bulky, too complex?


Of course, my perspective is shaped by the social bubble I’ve been in for the last 15 years: in cultural studies and linguistics and living in Berlin for many years! Wokeness is the buzzword of the hour in the urban, left-liberal milieu and denotes a new form of politically correct consciousness that likes to raise its moral finger. It makes perfect sense to me that some demands from this milieu, e.g. that people should stop saying “undeclared work”, are difficult to communicate to society as a whole. But the reactions I read on the net about the Duden’s advance were already fierce, and even culminated in Friedrich Merz calling for a ban on gender-equitable language the other day? In the meantime, this has even been enshrined in law in many places!


Here it becomes clear that it is not just about language per se, but that different lifestyles are being negotiated here. Terminology or certain ways of speaking are cultural codes and can quickly become exclusionary. The basic idea behind gender-responsive or discrimination-sensitive language is linguistic inclusion, i.e. the inclusion of everyone!


When I was a student of German, in the early 90s, I took a seminar called Männersprache-Frauensprache. I found that very exciting. There I learned that the linguist Luise Pusch had published a book entitled “Das Deutsche als Männersprache” in 1984. In it, she attested, among other things, that the example sentences used in the Duden are full of gender stereotypes that devalue women. She also once said that the German male language hides women better than a burka. Strong piece, isn’t it? At that time, at least in gender-sensitive circles, the large indented I or the slash became established as the standard in written language usage. Both are now considered obsolete.

When the Federal Constitutional Court recognized a non-binary gender, or third gender, in 2017, the debate flared up again, and forms were sought for how gender diversity would be more clearly visible in language.

Here to a personal note: I notice that, especially among the younger generation, this discourse is most present, and they associate gender-equitable language primarily with the designation of the 3rd gender. The originally feminist-motivated idea of giving women the same linguistic weight as men through the use of feminine forms seems to have been pushed a little into the background as a result.

The ‘queer movement has two new linguistic forms , which dissolve the “construct of bisexuality”:

1. the underline , which is supposed to symbolize the space that exists between the two poles male and female as a “gender gap”.

2. the “gender asterisk” which originally comes from the trans movement and is meant to include non-binary gender identities.

In 2021, the spelling with colon, i.e. Kolleg:innen is considered contemporary. For In the meantime, the demand for inclusive language has also come into focus with regard to other diversity aspects. This spelling is particularly inclusive because artificial intelligence, which supports the visually impaired, for example, places the small pause after the colon when reading aloud, i.e. Kolleg:innen, while the asterisk here would be pronounced something like (Kolleg-sternchen-innen). In linguistics, the small pause is called glottal stop, or glottal stop, which occurs frequently in German, for example in Spiegelei (instead of fried egg). Dear reader:inside – how does it feel for you? Could you get used to it?

There are many critiques of gendered language use, and you may find yourself here as well:

– many say it obfuscates the language, is cumbersome and lengthy, and difficult to read;

– other people say they do not want to be patronized on how to speak, keyword: language police

– still others think that it wouldn’t do women any good anyway if fairness was only achieved on a linguistic level, but not on a social level.

– An argument often made is that genus (i.e., grammatical gender) does not equal sexus (i.e., person gender). In German, some say, this generic (generalizing) masculine is systemic, i.e., the masculine form includes the feminine.

Is that really so? Modern linguistics holds that the question of whether the generic masculine means the other gender is and remains unclear. It’s very exciting to see what the research has to say about it anyway! Social psychologist Sabine Sczesny conducted the following study over 30 years ago:

One group of participants was given the task, “Name your favorite hero,” and the control group was told, “Name your favorite heroine or hero.” The results were clear. The first group named Superman and other male heroes, while the second group more often named women, such as their own mother or a neighbor. This shows that the linguistic form of the question thus influences our thinking and also that outstanding achievements of women become visible or not.

In 2015, a psychological study from the FU Berlin proved that gender-sensitive language influences children’s perception of occupations. Nearly 600 elementary school children rated occupations differently in terms of how attractive they were to them – depending on whether a gender-appropriate or male job title was read to them.

A study was conducted in the U.S. on job postings. If the wording conveyed the message that only men were wanted, women did not feel addressed and were less motivated to apply. If the wording also explicitly addressed women, they felt motivated to apply.

All these studies prove what fair language advocates have been emphasizing for 50 years: Language creates reality!

So I would like to invite you here to consider what might be a viable way forward for you on this complex issue? Perhaps that in the future you at least mention both genders in job titles? Or choose abstract terms that include both genders, such as students, teachers, counseling professionals?

Gender-equitable language use is therefore not limited to the question of whether asterisk or colon, but there are many ways to speak more equitably.

Be creative and try different things, see what fits for you.

For your support, I provide you with a guide under downloads, which I have created for my students and which can serve as orientation for you!

By the way: More and more public institutions such as the cities of Hanover Lübeck, Frankfurt Stuttgart, media such as the ZDF news but also companies such as Audi and Otto have officially adopted gender-sensitive language. Even though current surveys show that this form of writing and speaking is not yet a majority, forecasts say that customers & employees would pay more and more attention in the future to how diversity-sensitive and sustainable companies act.

My tip to you is: look for yourself what can be a coherent solution for you

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