Gender inclusive language at Raidboxes

Gender-Sensitive Language: What's it All About?

The debate about gendering has been controversial for several years: Some find gender-appropriate language superfluous, others extremely important. Why does the topic polarise so much? How can we make language as fair as possible? And can language change our thinking and thus our behaviour?

We at Raidboxes have been working intensively on the topic of gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory language. And that is exactly what this article is about: Why and how gender should be used - or not. 

Gendering is supposed to offer an alternative to the generic masculine. But does gender-appropriate language really make the world a fairer place? There are enough arguments for and against gendering. Before we take a closer look at them, we need to clarify a few basics.

What does gendering mean? 

Let's start with the most important thing: What is gendering anyway?

The online dictionary defines gendering as "applying gender mainstreaming (to something)". Gender mainstreaming refers to the "realisation of equality between men and women, taking into account gender-specific living conditions and interests".

In other words, gendering is about being able to name all people linguistically, to integrate them - and thus to respect them in a certain way. The goal is to address and include everyone. 

In practice, gendering means mentioning all or both genders in language use, and no longer just the masculine form. For example, reader is no longer used as the common form, but is replaced by neutral phrases such as Lesende

If you want to gender correctly, you can choose from a wide range of possibilities, we will come to that now.

Overview of common spellings

In German, there are various ways to gender. In written form, gendering can be done by marking the word with a colon, asterisk, etc. The first way is to use the word as a suffix.

These so-called gender signs are intended to express typographically that personal or professional names include the masculine, feminine and diverse forms. You have probably seen some of these spellings before, for example " Mitarbeiter:innen", " Expert*innen " or " KundInnen ". In spoken form, a longer pause is left between the root and the ending.

Let's take a look at the most popular variants using the reader as an example.

1st possibility: Gender sign

When writing, you can put a colon, an asterisk or an underscore between reader and inside. Or you can capitalise the I from the inside

  • Readers:inside
  • Readers
  • Readers
  • Readers
Gender sign
Gender signs at a glance at genderleicht.de

2nd possibility: Dual nomination

By naming both or in pairs, you are addressing people who identify as men and women:

  • Readers

3rd possibility: Neutral formulation

Or you can use a gender-neutral formulation. Note, however, that this does not work well for all words:

  • Reading 

Don't we have other problems? 

gender-inclusive-language
Excerpt from a video contribution by psychologeek

So far, so good. Perhaps now, at the latest, you are asking yourself: What problem do we actually have? And above all: Is this a problem at all? And is this issue really that important?

There is a phenomenon that author Caroline Criado-Perez refers to in her non-fiction book Invisible Women as "male unless indicated otherwise". This means we read most terms as male unless they are clearly marked as non-male. We linguistically adopt a default form, and this is undisputedly the masculine form.

The generic masculine

As already mentioned, there is something in our language that can exclude certain people: the so-called generic masculine. To include all persons, although grammatically only men are meant - this claim does not seem to work. So it is often anything but clear that really everyone is meant. 

What is the generic masculine?

Generic masculine is the use of the masculine gender to refer to mixed-gender groups. When the gender is not known or when we mean a group of several people of different genders, we use the generic masculine in German: die Zuhörer.

Global languages can be divided into three categories in terms of gender:

  1. Gendered languages such as Spanish, French and German (where nouns and pronouns have a gender).
  2. genderless languages such as Mandarin, Hungarian and Finnish (where nouns and pronouns have no marked gender) and 
  3. Natural gender languages such as English (with gendered pronouns and genderless nouns).

However, studies show that countries that use genderless languages are not necessarily far ahead in terms of equality.

The generic masculine also occurs in English: English does have the suffix female - for example, in current buzzwords such as female leadership, female founder and so on. However, the suffix male is only used in exceptional cases. Author Caroline Criado-Perez puts this principle in a nutshell: "The male sex goes without saying"

Gendering - What is it actually about?

Several studies show that the generic masculine is not read neutrally, but predominantly in masculine terms. This has significant implications for the whole gender debate.

In Invisible Women , the author gives a small but significant example: emojis. When emojis were first introduced, all platforms designed and coded their emojis as male only - without the Unicode standard specifying this.

A word like runner was read exclusively as male runner. This example shows that even neutral phrases evoke male associations in our society. Unicode reacted to this and stipulated that all emojis must be gendered. Female emojis followed first, and later gender-neutral emojis were added. 

Critical voices of gendering in this sense often argue that we should rather introduce gender-neutral terms instead of naming all genders.

The truth is that getting rid of the generic masculine would only be half the battle: male bias is so firmly embedded in our psyche that even genuinely gender-neutral words are read as male.

Caroline Criado-Perez

The quote makes it clear: If instead of three gender-specific emojis we were to use only one ggender-neutral emoji, that would not be a solution. The reason is that most people would still read this symbol as a male jogger.

Why gendering is (not) total nonsense

A recent opinion poll with 2,000 respondents showed that less than 30 per cent of the German population find gender-equitable language important. The rest are either against it or shrug their shoulders:

Survey-gender-inclusive-language
INSA survey: How important is gendering?

As already mentioned, there are enough arguments against gendering. For example, that the readability and comprehensibility of texts can be impaired. Counter-gendered texts are longer, contain strange special characters in the middle of words and possibly distract from the actual content of the text. But does gendering really destroy our language?

Criticism #1 

With all the big global problems of our time - do we really need to concern ourselves with something so banal?

Yes, indeed, there are things that are more important. We have problems that are more urgent and more important, especially in 2021. But that's not really what gendering is about. When we use the generic masculine, it has consequences for the way we think and perceive, more on that later.

The gender debate shows even more: if we cannot even manage to introduce something supposedly banal like gendering, how can we take further steps towards equality? Our language is a relatively easy outlet that all people can use on themselves.

Criticism #2

Gendering ruins the language and is grammatically wrong.

Orthography, correct grammar, readability and comprehensibility have priority. But grammar is man-made and can also be changed by us humans. Today, we no longer speak and write the way we used to.

Just as we have established that capitalisation is used at the beginning, we can also establish new rules. For example, that it is grammatically correct to gender - in whatever form.

Language has never been set in stone and language continues to evolve, especially due to cultural and social influences. Old terms are constantly being replaced by new ones.

Incidentally, gender-equitable language has already been made compulsory at some universities.

Criticism #3

This is all far too elaborate and complicated for me with gendering. 

Gendering brings about change. It is understandable to some extent to refrain from it for reasons of convenience. Counter-gendered words may sound complicated, unfamiliar and even a bit bumpy. In the beginning, we had just as much trouble with it and had to warm up to this way of speaking. Gendering is a matter of getting used to it - if you want to get used to it. 

On the other hand, for people who have learned a gender-neutral or genderless language as their mother tongue, it is difficult to learn German. This is because it is linguistically something new. People who are familiar with the German language just have to get into it.

Criticism #4

There is no linguistic discrimination against non-male persons, because the generic masculine includes everyone.

Our entire language is gendered. The generic masculine is also a form of gendering, albeit a very dull one. Those who say that women are always simply included are making it easy for themselves. We are socialised to always think of the male first. With the majority, many only think of men - even if unconsciously.

There are many studies on this. Almost all of them conclude that the generic masculine strengthens the association male. Firstly, because we use it to refer to men in general. Secondly, because we mean the gender-specific form. Feminine forms, on the other hand, cannot necessarily be used for men. This creates an asymmetry that benefits men.

In this spirit, the online Duden is now also being counter-gendered: All 12,000 personal and professional terms are currently being adapted. In future, instead of one word article, there will be two - one for the masculine and one for the feminine form.

How language creates reality

Clearly, gendering alone will not achieve equality. Words alone will not change everyone's attitude, of course. Just by gendering, we won't solve all our global problems. But by normalising gender-equitable language, we can raise the awareness of children who are learning to speak now and in the future.

In a 2015 study, almost 600 primary school children were read various job titles with descriptions. Either the occupations were read to the children in gender-equal language or in the generic masculine.

The children were asked to answer whether they could imagine working in this profession. It turned out that girls who were confronted with gender-equitable designations were much more likely to have confidence in pursuing a STEM profession - that is, in the field of mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology.

Even though gender-appropriate language is important, it does not solve the problem of female and diverse role models. Especially in STEM professions, there is often a lack of role models. However, gendering can be an important step in the right direction.

If we know that people should not express themselves in a discriminatory way, it is perhaps normal that we do not discriminate in other areas of life.

Perhaps children will then also question whether only men can become engineers and only women can become educators. Children learn that not only boys can programme. And girls are more confident about professions if the female form is also listed, as the short film Redraw the Balance also shows.

Final thoughts

Society is changing, language is changing: just as we are increasingly adopting English terms into usage and adapting them grammatically, we can also introduce gendering. It is not difficult and certainly not scary. 

At Raidboxes , we have chosen to write with a colon. Firstly, because this form is machine-readable and more inclusive: speech output programmes automatically read the colon as a pause. Secondly, because the colon visually connects rather than separates.

We know that the spelling is not perfect. But it doesn't have to be. We see the colon more as a tool on the way to a more just language. Gendering is incredibly important because language shapes our thinking and how we perceive the world.

"Languages of course are living things that we can own and change to suit our needs" - clarifies Caroline Criado-Perez. And we have a need right now: the equality of all genders.

Of course, gendering is not the only factor for equality. Nevertheless, the issue should be taken into account. Especially because the ratio of effort to effectiveness is relatively low. What remains to be said is: practice makes perfect - and the masters.

Further reading

  • Invisible Women
    In her fact-filled book, author Caroline Criado-Perez explains the phenomenon of the gender data gap. She shows where our world is made for men and why this can be dangerous for women - a search for gender justice in everyday life.
  • How Language Shapes the Way We Think
    There are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world. But do they also shape the way we think? Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shares linguistic examples and possible answers in her TED Talk.
  • Genderleicht.de and geschicktgendern.de
    The websites Genderleicht and Geschickt Gendern provide you with many useful tips and tools for non-discriminatory writing and speaking.
  • WordPress Code of Conduct
    Be considerate, respectful, and collaborative - these are just a few of the rules of conduct from the WordPress Community Code of Conduct. They all stand for common values and respectful, cooperative interaction.
  • Raidboxes Code of Conduct
    Our own guidelines are about, among other things, creating awareness of a diverse team - regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ability or impairment, origin, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), age, social or economic status.

Your questions about gender

What are your views on gender-equal language? Do new spellings help? Let us know in the comments! You want to be informed about new postson Raidboxes ? Then follow us on Twitter, Facebook or via our Newsletter.

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