Gender neutral language 

Let's gender?! Why Germans are having a debate about Grammar, Stars and Gaps

As communicators, we know about the effect of language and use it consciously in our work. However, this also goes hand in hand with responsibility. Language influences our perception and creates realities. It is therefore important to us to offer our customers advice on the topic of gender neutral language.

You might be aware that the German language knows more than one grammatical gender: we use feminine, masculine, neuter. In the plural form, it has been common to use the generic masculine. Today, as we are getting increasingly sensitive about gender equality, inclusion and anti discrimination, there is a vivid discussion going on about how the use of the generic masculine actively excludes other sexes – and what can be done about it. How can we create a more inclusive language?

The public debate about the sense and nonsense of gendering is also motivating more and more German companies to explore their own position on this topic and to set guidelines for an inclusive use of language. If you are a non-German business doing PR in the German market, you might want to consider this as well. And we are happy to provide you guidance on this matter.

This is what gender neutral language is all about

Gender identity refers to a person's inner knowledge of which sex they feel they belong to. The term is not synonymous with gender role, namely the expectation of other people or society of a person based on their biological male or female sex. There are many more than two gender identities: Those who do not feel (only) male or female refer to themselves as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, bigender, or neutrois, for example.

The idea behind gender neutral language is to include all these - or as many as possible - identities, or at least not to exclude them consciously or unconsciously in speech and writing. Unfortunately, the German language comes up against some limits here in its attempt at inclusion; there are no gender neutral pronouns, for example. In any case, however, at least women and men should and can be treated equally in texts. What for? Because equality between men and women has not yet been achieved in many parts of society. Especially in the professional world, but also on the political and cultural stage, women are too often in the second row.

Gender neutral language alone cannot solve the problem, but it helps make the existing imbalance visible.

Manuela Moore, managing partner at Oseon

The use of gender neutral language alone cannot solve this problem, but it helps make the existing imbalance visible and signals: "I don't agree with the status quo." Instead of "including" women in the generic masculine, they need to be consciously named and addressed, motivated to participate, and their role and performance need to be made visible in various areas. Especially in the professional world, inclusive language mentally opens up all occupations and positions to all genders. For example, if job advertisements are deliberately worded in a gender neutral or inclusive way, they encourage more women to apply because they also feel explicitly addressed.

The regular use of inclusive language can support a change in thinking in society. If all genders are represented equally and with equal value in a language, it helps dissolve classic role models.

From * to gender gap: different ways of presentation

Unfortunately, there is no official grammatical way, yet, as how to write gender neutral in German. There is rather a variety of options that come along with different pros and cons:

  • the use of completely gender neutral forms, including the use of participles, e.g. "Belegschaft" (staff) instead of "Mitarbeiter" (generic masculine plural of "employees")
  • the conscious use of both the masculine and feminine form, e.g. "Mitarbeiter und Mitarbeiterinnen" (masculine and female plural forms of and "employees").
  • the use of gender signs such as
    • Mitarbeiter*innen
    • MitarbeiterInnen
    • Mitarbeiter/-innen
    • Mitarbeiter_innen
    • Mitarbeiter:innen

In addition to language, you should also consider the choice of inclusive imagery on your website or in other materials, pay attention to diversity in the selection and placement of speakers, and ensure gender-aware portrayals of life and work scenarios.

Any business considering implementing the use of gender-responsive language should know the pros and cons of the various options and establish consistent guidelines across the organization.

Manuela Moore, managing partner at Oseon

Is gender neutral language something we want to pursue at all?

As a communications agency, we can help you find an answer to the question "To gender or not to gender, and if so, how?" This sentence, however, already contains a very important point: We cannot, should not, and do not want to take the decision for or against gender neutral language for you. Intrinsic motivation to promote equality, also linguistically, and the development of your own attitude are indispensable. In terms of credibility and authenticity, gender sensitivity and inclusion should be rooted in your corporate culture.

But this is what we can provide:

  • We can provide food for thought and inform you about the state of the debate and the pros and cons.
  • We can give you tools to develop your own position as a company.
  • We can guide the process of transitioning to gender neutral language within your organisation, if you choose to do so.

How we can add value

We have developed a comprehensive range of different formats to make it easier for you to discuss and form an opinion on the topic:

  • insightful presentations and workshops
  • staff surveys
  • development of your individual company guidelines for the use of gender neutral language in German
  • training for your team
  • help with the revision of your website and other materials
  • support of your internal communication and employer branding

Whether you would like to learn more about the topic of gender neutral language or need concrete support for your team, we are here to help.