25. June 2019

Language: An important component of inclusion

What does language have to do with gender? Why is it important to pay attention to gender-neutral language, if a company or educational institution wants to be more inclusive? Terms like “boss” or “doctor” create clear pictures in our minds. Such images can be influenced by language.

Linguistic experts estimate that language and social reality are closely linked to each other. Things take on reality when we formulate them with words. This is why gender-neutral language is important.

Gender-neutral language refers to language that always addresses both – or all – genders. It’s a linguistic inclusion process. In German, the so-called “generic masculine” form is often used. This term conveys that both the masculine and feminine forms are meant. So if I say “Die Mitarbeiter der Firma X..”, this use of language assumes that female employees, or also employees who don’t belong to either gender, are also being addressed. Many studies have shown, however, that this is not the case. People need to be specifically named to feel like they’re being addressed. There are various ways to do this: by using the participle form “Mitarbeitende” or forms that express more than two genders, like “Mitarbeiter/innen” or “Mitarbeiter*innen”.

So if a company wants to address its employees equally, then gender-neutral language will play a significant role. The latest research shows that women* have more hurdles to overcome in their careers than men, regardless of their professional skills. And not just women*, but also other groups are discriminated based on their gender. Transgender people are highly discriminated against in the working world today. Sexual orientation can also cause people to be excluded. Since the German language has gender-specific grammar, the category of gender is present in one way or another in many statements. The language functions in a binary way, which means that there is only male or female when it comes to human genders. So inclusive language begins by taking these things into consideration and treating them equally.

Many believe that the problem of exclusion, i.e. the problem of not feeling addressed by the masculine form, can be attributed to women* themselves. This view ignores scientific evidence that language also creates inner images. If one speaks only of “the boss” and “the doctor”, the inner images that emerge are male – not female. And if there are no women* on this level, then it is much more difficult for them to create a vision of being “the boss” or “the doctor” themselves.

To want to leave one’s own language as it is, however, also has to do with the fact that it is not so easy to change. So first of all you need an awareness of the problem and then the will to make your own language more inclusive.

The consideration of men and women at the level of language brings us closer to gender equality. Gender dualism, however, does not yet reflect all modes of existence of gender. The German Constitutional Court has recognised a third gender which includes all people who are not included in this gender dualism. That is, people who, albeit in different ways, find themselves “between” the sexes, such as transmen, intersex people, or people who do not assign themselves to any gender. I hold the view that our society should linguistically include all modes of existence of gender and recognize this third gender position. Historically, however, this attitude has been much more controversial than the recognition of equal opportunities for men and women. By using a gender-equitable language that explicitly appeals to women, a big and important step has already been taken! For the future, I hope that one day we will officially recognise other ways of existence. That we also find linguistic solutions for people “between the sexes”. In addition to formulations that avoid gender classification (Mitarbeitende, Führungskraft), we can make use of the “gender gap” or underscore (Mitarbeiter_innen) or the asterisk (Chef*innen).

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There are critical voices complaining that such solutions are formally unattractive and make language cumbersome. It is true that we are generally thrifty in the use of language and want to express ourselves briefly and concisely. Thus, smooth expressions are important. Orally, however, it is quite easy to express these signs by a short pause in the flow of speech. So the hurdles seem to lie more in speaking and thinking habits than in language economy and aesthetics. Of course, we have to get used to these forms first, and they seem “bumpy” when used for the first time. And maybe they will change in the near future. But language use is always also language policy. If a society decides to include a third sex, as Germany has just done, it will also have to find linguistic forms to express this inclusion.