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How to use gender sensitive language. Part 1: When to do it.

It has been a much-discussed topic for some time now: gender-fair language. The debate runs particularly hot in countries with languages that use grammatical genders, where it can be tricky to speak in a gender neutral way without moving away from standard grammar and spelling. Such as in German. This article will give you a first idea of what to pay attention to, if you are learning German and want to speak inclusively.

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For example, while in English “the doctor” can refer to women, men, or anyone else, in German “der Arzt” or “die Ärztin” have to be used depending on the person’s gender (with no option for nonbinary or intersex people). Still, even in English we’ve observed some insecurity about whether gender-fair language is necessary, and if so, how to implement it. So in this series of articles we’d like to show you it can look like in practice. Starting with a question we are asked time and again: Do I really have to use gender-fair language all the time?

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It takes some time to accommodate to a more attentive way of speaking and writing. However, if you keep practicing inclusive communication, it will come very naturally at some point.

Why use gender-fair language?

A common mistake and source of resistance is the assumption that we should address everyone in a gender-neutral way and never use any gendered words at all. (Interesting side note: While “gendered words” in English correctly refers to words that are not gender neutral, in German it’s the other way around. So if you hear a German talk about “gendering”, they mean making a word more gender neutral and inclusive.)

However, it’s not true at all that every word needs to be neutral at all times. The purpose of gender-fair language is to include people of all genders in the way we speak. And the generic masculine, i.e. always using the masculine form and claiming that it also includes everyone else, excludes women as well as non-binary and intersex people. Research has repeatedly shown that this is the case and that it can have a noticeable impact on prejudices and even people's self-image. 

When should I use gender-fair language?

This means that gender-fair language is particularly important where language reinforces prejudices and discrimination. If, for example, we only ever talk about “firemen” or “policemen”, this contributes to the fact that we mainly think of men in these professions and even have less confidence in women. We see the same effect if we use words that are neutral by themselves, such as “boss” or “professor”, but then only use “he” to refer to them generically. So these are instances where gender-fair language would be appropriate. The same applies if you are addressing a group in which not everyone has the same gender, because otherwise part of the group will feel at least subtly excluded.

In English, there aren’t too many instances of gendered words, so pronouns are going to be the main thing to watch out for when trying to be gender-fair. We will get into how to use them properly, as well as whether to use words such as “actress” later on in this series. 

So to sum it up, use gender-fair language when:

  • You are speaking about a group of people, such as a profession, generically, e.g. “Firefighters help in emergencies”. 

  • You are talking about or addressing a mixed group, e.g. “The congresspeople took a vote.”

  • You are addressing a person whose gender you don’t know or who would like to be addressed in a gender-neutral way, e.g. “Dear Alex Müller”.

If you’re trying to be gender-fair in a language like German, you might also need to watch out for other terms that include the generic masculine. For example, “Bürgerversammlung”, i.e. citizens’ assembly, uses the generic masculine and should be replaced by something more neutral, since it reflects social inequalities and make women and gender minorities feel excluded. At the same time, “Bürgersteig”, i.e. sidewalk, uses the same word, but replacing it is less crucial, since it doesn’t directly reinforce gender norms. (That being said, replacing it with the fully neutral “Gehweg” is simple enough.)

When do I not need to use gender-fair language?

You’ve likely gotten the idea by now: You don’t need to use gender-fair language when addressing a single person whose gender and/or preferred terms of address you know. The same is true for groups of only one gender. So feel free to continue to say that your best friend is a businesswoman or address a group of men as “guys.” 

In short: Ask yourself whether a term implies bias against a particular gender or excludes some genders that should be included. If so, finding a more neutral term is the way to go.

We will explain exactly how to do this correctly in the next part of this series.


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