What is gendering in German?

by Jakob Straub
February 15, 2021
woman studying gendering in german

The anglicism “Gendering” in German denotes the consideration of the gender aspect in society, in particular a gender-conscious use of language. Changes to existing conventions seek to promote equality, diversity and inclusion as well as a non-binary understanding of gender. Opponents to gendering claim that these changes to written and spoken German are impractical. We’ll talk about gender-conscious language, the ongoing gender debate in Germany and German gendering. 

Gendering: gender-conscious German

Germany officially distinguishes between three genders: your passport can specify one of the binary options of female and male as well as diverse, supposedly including all other gender identities. Gender refers to social and cultural rather than biological differences between individuals and denotes a range or spectrum instead of fixed and arbitrary categories.

This hasn’t always been the case and language is a testament to that. In German, the gender of many nouns referring to people is masculine because historically, these words used to denote males and males only. “Doktor”, “Beamter”, “Richter” (doctor, official, judge) are positions and professions traditionally accessible to men alone. 

Yet language can adapt when circumstances change. When women gained the right to vote in Germany, eventually the word “Wählerinnen” referred to female voters. Since around the 19th century, the masculine form, especially in the plural, is known as ‘generic masculine’ and includes all other genders. “Bürger” can refer to citizens of all genders. When Angela Merkel was elected as Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005, some politicians still referred to her as “Kanzler” – today, it’s inconceivable NOT to call her “Die Kanzlerin”!

In other cases, gender neutral nouns exist for an inclusive use of language. Instead of the binary “Verkäufer und Verkäuferinnen” (salesmen and saleswomen), German also has “Verkaufspersonal” (sales personnel or salesperson in the singular).

Gendering, also known as “Gendern” in German, commonly goes beyond the generic masculine and mere gender neutral forms, actively raising awareness for gender issues and promoting non-binary gender identities.

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Does gendering exist in other languages?

The debate around gender is not exclusive to German and exists in other languages as well. English is a special case due to its larger number of gender-unspecific nouns and gender-neutral articles. There are attempts at a less biased use of the English language, though.

Gender issues in English include naming practices for buildings, landmarks or weather phenomena, generic words for humans, honorifics in formal address, pronouns and job titles, that is the use of chairperson instead of chairman or chairwoman, mail carrier instead of mailman or mailwoman and flight attendant instead of stewardess or steward. Other job titles are more ambiguous as to whether they are generic or gender-specific, leading to terms such as comedienne, actress, male nurse, male model or lady doctor and lady boss.

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In Spanish, the generic masculine is a catch-all for plural forms. For example, the politician can be “la politica” (feminine) or “el politico” (masculine), whereas “los políticos” is the grammatically correct form for a diverse group of politicians and “las politicas” denotes a group of female-only politicians.

Like in other Romance languages, the two grammatical genders in Spanish make gender-neutral or non-binary language difficult. Gendering advocates sometimes use a symbol instead of “a” and “o” to designate gender fluidity, such as using “l@s amig@s” (the friends) instead of las/los amigas/amigos. This can still appear binary, leading to the use of also “Latinx” or “Latine” instead of “Latin@”.

Examples of gendering in German

Despite the many rules of the language, there is no established norm in German on how to properly gender (yet). Part of the gender(ing) debate is indeed if there should be conventions at all, if gendering isn’t overreaching and if language can be an advocate for gender equality and against bias and discrimination.

The most basic form of gender-conscious language in use by many print and online publications is a simple disclaimer that all gender-specific terms are used in an inclusive sense and refer to the whole spectrum. Sometimes the first occurrence of such a term is marked specifically to alert to the issue. The following is an overview of different examples of how to gender in German!

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Binary markers

This way of gendering is used to abbreviate diverse language in writing. The plural form of teachers is “Die Lehrer” in German, but it’s also a generic masculine. To talk about a diverse group of teachers, you could use “Die Lehrerinnen und Lehrer”. In writing, this can quickly become repetitive and lead to an increase in text length.

There are several attempts at shorter forms and phrases which are still inclusive and don’t break up the flow when reading:

  • der/die Arbeiter/in (the male/female worker)
  • die Lehrer*innen (the male*female teachers)
  • Ein_e Doktor_in (a male_female doctor)
  • die Doktoranden*Doktorandinnen (the male*female postgraduate students)

Critics argue that asterisks and underscores make a text more difficult to read while still keeping gender binary, but advocates propose the markers include the entire spectrum and that our reading habits can change, similar to the way in which we’re able to overlook typos.

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Gender-neutral forms

Gender-unspecific nouns can be a way towards diversity and inclusion because the reader is able to insert their own conception of the gender spectrum. German can accomplish this for many nouns which also have a corresponding verb by deriving a new noun from the verb’s participle. Though it sounds complicated, it can be an elegant solution which is easy to read as well. Have a look at the following table for examples:

ENGLISHMASCULINEFEMININENEUTRAL
studentStudentStudentinStudierende
participantTeilnehmerTeilnehmerinTeilnehmende
clients / customersAuftraggeberAuftraggeberinnenAuftraggebende
listenersZuhörerZuhörerinnenZuhörende
votersWählerWählerinnenWählende
winnersGewinnerGewinnerinnenGewinnende
recipientsEmpfängerEmpfängerinnenEmpfangende

Note that in many cases, this only works for plural forms. “Auftraggebende” is a gender-neutral form for clients, but in its singular form, it would become “Auftraggebender” and would therefore be as gender-specific as “Auftraggeber” which you’re trying to substitute in the first place.

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Job descriptions

As we’ve noted above, many professions were historically held by men only and are therefore gender-specific or using the generic masculine. The inverse can be true also: some jobs or professions are traditionally associated with women, such as “Krankenschwester” (nurse) “Hebamme” (midwife) or “Putzfrau” (cleaning woman).

“Krankenpfleger” appears to be an improvement over “Krankenschwester”, but remains gender-specific due to grammatical gender. Many professions can be made gender-neutral in German at least in their plural forms following the participle approach outlined above: instead of “Handwerkerinnen und Handwerker” (craftsmen and craftswomen) you could say “Handwerkende”.

However, critics argue that many German professions are a specific, protected trade you learn and we therefore need to distinguish between someone who is an actual trained chef (“Koch” / “Köchin”) and people who are cooking (“Kochende”).

Companies looking to hire can avoid gender-specific discrimination in job titles and descriptions through more diverse listings. This is why you’ll see “m/w/d” or “MWD” added to job titles in advertisements, which stands for “männlich / weiblich / divers” (male / female / diverse).

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Stereotypes and figures of speech

Another aspect is the elimination of gender-specific stereotypes. The German language happens to be full of expressions and figures of speech which attribute a gender-specific role and are therefore stereotypical, discriminatory or even downright sexist. A few example are:

  • Karrierefrau (career woman)
  • Powerfrau (power woman)
  • Hausmannskost (home cooking)
  • Manneskraft (virility)
  • Männersache (manly business)
  • Weibergewäsch (women’s gossip)
  • Waschweib (washerwoman)

Many of these expressions or figures of speech are so established that we hardly question them. Yet a good way to avoid using them is to apply the principle of gender symmetry. Ask yourself: does the same expression exist for the opposite gender, and if not, why? The term “Karrieremann” for example is not in use, because it’s common for men to pursue a career. But the same is true for women and no individual gender should be singled out.

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The gender debate is here to stay

Gendering is a way to promote gender-conscious language and mindful language in general. It serves as a reminder that language is fluid, ever-changing and able to adapt to circumstances. The gender debate is an ongoing discussion about social and cultural norms, but also about how we can have an open, inclusive and positive exchange.

Meanwhile, consumer culture is also breaking free of gender dichotomy. In 1994 already Calvin Klein marketed jeans and the fragrance CK One “unisex”. In today’s day and age, Levi’s offers an “Unlabeled” collection with gender-unspecific clothing, and the US-American singer Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue modelling a Gucci dress.

In Germany, the wage gap still exists. To make real change happen, we have to follow words with actions and not only talk about inclusion and diversity with regard to gender, but actively live those values.

Do you want to know more about gendered languages and change in language? Read our article Can languages be sexist?

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