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Language plays an important role in every-day teaching. Whether spoken, in form of texts, or as body language, it is the main form of communication for teaching. Language creates relationships between people. It transports norms, ideas and connotations and thus shapes our consciousness. It is easier for us to imagine things for which we have words. The way reality is described – be it a person or a job – has a strong influence on how we perceive this reality, ourselves and what we are capable of achieving.

As most of the vocabulary and grammatical aspects we call attention to refer specifically to the German language, we have have left most of the examples in German. If you are teaching in English, we recommend the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language.

Three good reasons to use gender- and diversity conscious language:

  • It creates more visibility: By recognizing and verbally illustrating the accomplishments of all university members.
  • It addressed everyone: By addressing students and other university members in such a way that all feel recognized and valued.
  • It avoids stereotypical representation and discrimination: Instead of language that hurts, degrades or “exoticizes” people, employing language that values and recognizes them.

In Germany, there are legal guidelines for the use of gender-neutral language. For example, equal treatment of women and men in language is recorded in the Rules of Procedure (Gemeinsame Geschäftsordnung) for Berlin administration (GGO I, § 2 Abs. 2). Freie Universität Berlin has pledged to employing gender-neutral language in its 1990 Guidelines for the Promotion of Women (Frauenförderrichtlinien) (FFR, § 29 Abs.2). In the context of the General Law on Equal Treatment (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz) (AGG §3), it is possible to take legal action against discriminatory language.

A single correct solution for gender- and diversity conscious language does not exist. In the following, you will discover what you can look out for, and will learn about different possibilities for using language in a creative way that will include all addressees. Using language in a skillful and inclusive way has a lot to do with routine and becomes easier with time.

Gender conscious language in German

In the German language, the so-called “generic masculine” (generisches Maskulinum) is commonly used in order to address everyone. However, when the masculine form is used exclusively, this can often create the impression that only men are addressed. Furthermore, in German the masculine has precedence in the plural. Luise F. Pusch describes this in the sentence “99 Sängerinnen und ein Sänger sind zusammen 100 Sänger“ (Pusch 1990, translated as: “99 (female) singers and one (male) singer are 100 (male) singers together“). It has also been empirically proven that the impression of reality created by the “generic masculine” does not consistently include women (Stefanowitsch 2011, Vervecken Hannover 2015)

What images come to mind when you hear or read, for example, the German words „Tutoren gesucht“ (looking for (male) tutors) or “talentierte Nachwuchswissenschaftler” (talented (male) junior researchers)?

This is problematic because women and their achievements are made invisible through this use of language. Especially when it comes to naming role models and those who play an important part in society, specifically in research and universities, it is essential to word things exactly.

In the following, you will find a selection of gender conscious alternatives to the German „generic masculine“:

Wording sentences in a gender-neutral or open way:

A useful and economical way to word sentences in a gender conscious way in German is the use of participles and adjectives used as nouns. In particular, these are easy to use in the plural. For the singular, we recommend other forms.

German examples:

  • Die Universitäts-KiTa steht allen Mitarbeitenden und Studierenden der Universität zur Verfügung.
  • Lehrende können sich jetzt für das Weiterbildungsprogramm im Sommersemester anmelden.
  • Interessierte wenden sich bitte an die Koordinationsstelle.

Many people cannot or do not want to classify themselves under the norm of only two genders, and appellations or greetings such as “Bewerberinnen und Bewerber” do not correctly address them. In German, the underscore (Gender-Gap) or the asterisk open the possibility not only to make men and women visible, but also transgender and intersex people and all those societal positions that exist beyond female and male genders. Both forms are spoken with a “glottal stop”, a brief pause, where the underscore or the asterisk is.

German examples:

  • Sehr geehrte Professor*innen
  • [Vorname, Nachname] ist Mitarbeiter_in unserer Arbeitsstelle.
  • Alle teilnehmenden Student*innen erhalten eine Bestätigung.

Another way to refer to people without making an assumption about their gender is to refer to the function in which the person is active. Not only can this be done by naming the existing function, but German also offers the possibility of using suffixes such as “-kraft”, “-hilfe”, “-ung”, “-leute”.

German examples:

  • [Vorname, Nachname], Mitglied der Auswahlkommission, trat nach der Sitzung vor die Presse.
  • Personen, die sich beworben haben, erhalten umgehend eine Bestätigung.
  • Die Seminarleitung führt eine Redeliste.
  • In diesen Feldern gibt es eine Fülle an qualifizierten Fachleuten.
  • Für die Promotion brauchen Sie zunächst eine geeignete Betreuung.
  • Informationen erhalten Sie bei der Leitung des Dual Career Service.

Further reading:

Zentrale Frauenbeauftragte der Freien Universität Berlin. 2013. Geschlechtergerecht in Sprache und Bild – Ein Leitfaden

When writing or speaking exclusively about women, this should be made clear. The gender of the noun and the person it describes should grammatically coincide.

Examples in German:

  • Frau Meinhart ist Professorin der Physik
  • Als Sprecherin begrüßen wir Frau Soluch und als Sprecher Herrn Dellilo. Oder: Wir begrüßen herzlich Frau Soluch und Herrn Dellilo, die heute zu folgenden Themen sprechen werden: ...
  • Projektleiterin ist Frau Obua, ihre Mitarbeiterin Frau Ziolkowska ist verantwortlich für die Finanzkalkulation, ihr Mitarbeiter Herr Degener ist zuständig für die Öffentlichkeitsarbeit.

When addressing women as well as men, this should also be made explicit, instead of merely implying that women are included.

Examples in German:

  • Liebe Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter | Liebe Mitarbeiterin, lieber Mitarbeiter
  • Expertinnen und Experten stehen Ihnen mit Rat und Tat zur Seite.
  • Bitte lassen Sie den Antrag von Ihrem Betreuer oder Ihrer Betreuerin unterschreiben.

Other shorter alternatives when speaking about women and men are the forms with a forward slash or the “Binnen-I”. The “Binnen-I” is used to mark a feminine ending added on to a noun. The feminine endings of nouns in German are built with a -in in the singular, or -innen in the plural. The so called “Binnen-I”, or interior I, capitalizes the first letter -i of these feminine endings and thus serves to make the feminine ending visible in the noun. A noun with a “Binnen-I” then included both male and female addresses.

The forward slash and the “Binnen-I” are suitable both in writing and speech. A “glottal stop”, or brief pause, marks them when speaking. In speech, these forms cannot be differentiated from the underscore or the asterisk and are therefore sometimes only used in written texts, and when spoken, the masculine and female forms are both used.

Examples in German:

  • Ein/e Wissenschaftler/in
  • Die Forscher/innen
  • Ein/e DoktorandIn
  • alle BewerberInnen

Rephrasing or introductory sub-clauses can be used in order to avoid wording sentences in which assumptions about people's genders are made.

Impersonal pronouns such as “wer”, “wenn”, “alle, die”, “diejenigen, die”, as well as directly addressing a person or the passive form can all be used to the same purpose. In many cases, the use of the plural can also be helpful.

Examples in German:

  • Wenn Sie ein Stipendium erhalten, müssen Sie Ihre Leistungsnachweise in jedem Semester vorlegen.
  • Das Dokument wird Ihnen zum Download zur Verfügung gestellt.
  • Ihr Name, Ihre Unterschrift
  • Die Namen aller Personen, die zur Prüfung zugelassen sind, werden öffentlich bekannt gegeben.
  • Herausgegeben von…