Correctly observing gender neutrality – a 'how to' guide

  • 2023-11-20
  • Lisa Priller-Gebhardt
Cropped shot of unrecognizable man holding a piece of paper with gender equality symbols indoors
© Getty Images/LaylaBird

An asterisk, underscore, colon – it’s important nowadays to use language in such a way that all gender identities feel as if they’re being equally addressed. This applies both to written and to verbal communication. We answer the most significant questions in this regard and explain how to correctly observe gender neutrality in German. 

Why gender correctness?

For some years now, organisations in Germany including companies, public authorities and higher education institutions have observed gender neutrality. The idea behind this is that everyone, whether they identify as female, male or genderless, should feel that their situation is considered within the use of language. Because language stimulates our thinking. So language becomes more equitable if the respective female and male form or a generic term is used rather than the traditional masculine. That’s why reference is also made to .  

What’s the significance of genders in a working environment?

Employers have been obliged to formulate job ads in a gender-neutral manner since 2019. Specification of the abbreviations ‘m/f/d’, which stands for male, female, diverse is intended to ensure that all genders feel invited to apply. Numerous studies reveal that more women apply for posts that are formulated in a gender-neutral manner, such as the use of ‘electrical engineering professional’ rather than ‘Elektrotechniker’ (the German term for a male electrical engineer). Many job titles in German only become commonplace when a woman occupies the post in question: the word ‘Bundeskanzlerin’ (female term for Chancellor) has only been used since 2005.  

What written alternatives are there?

Many companies now oblige their employees to use gender-neutral language in their internal and external communication and have developed corresponding guidelines. There are several solutions that are appropriate for gender-sensitive usage: 

Nomination of pairs
Gender symbols
Gender neutral plural
Rephrasing composites

Is gender neutrality also observed in spoken language?

Whether on TV, on the radio, in , the underscore, also called the gender gap, is usually included. This involves a small pause between ‘Kolleg’ and ‘innen’ (to indicate all colleague_s). It is how gender neutrality is observed when speaking.

Why are discussions on gender neutrality so controversial?

The topic of gender identity has long been the subject of an often extremely emotional debate. Many people perceive it as paternalistic. Others conversely see it as an important means of promoting as it is also enshrined in the Basic Law. There was discussion for instance during the in Australia and New Zealand this summer, where the German players regularly sang the national anthem, as to whether it should be rewritten. ‘Vaterland’ (fatherland) could then become ‘Heimatland’ (home country), for example. 

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