Firefighters to the rescue: tackling the burning issue of gender in English

If you live and work in Germany, you’ll have definitely come across the term Gendern in the recent past.
A trending topic for some time now, it has its share of both advocators and naysayers. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, it seems to be a phenomenon that’s here to stay. And it has set ablaze Germany’s corporate corridors in its wake, with communicators and marketers now having to manoeuvre their way through the delicate minefield of gender-sensitive language.

Gender is a hot topic

So what exactly is Gendern? As you might have guessed, the term has its roots in the English word ‘gender’ and refers to the social construct of genders and their correct usage in communication of any kind. However, in a broader sense, gender also denotes a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.

In German, among other things, it covers the fundamental aspect of gender inclusivity. For instance, take the word ‘Kunden’, which means ‘customers’. When writing an email or a letter, there are now several ways to use this noun in a more inclusive fashion: ‘Liebe Kunden und Kundinnen’, ‘Liebe KundInnen’, ‘Liebe Kund/-innen’, ‘Liebe Kund(innen)’, ‘Liebe Kund*innen’, ‘Liebe Kund_innen’, ‘Liebe Kund:innen’, etc. Although the versions with special symbols are yet to be officially approved by experts on the German language, such as the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung and the Duden, they are currently being used as gender-sensitive variants in written communication.

In English, this broader definition of gender inclusivity was in the eye of a social media storm not too long ago when a gender-related tweet by acclaimed author J.K. Rowling set Twitter on fire. However, for the sake of simplicity, this blog focuses more on gender neutrality.

So how does the issue of Gendern impact the English language? Is it equally relevant? If so, how do you ensure gender-neutral language in your English content? Although gender-sensitive usage isn’t as multifaceted and complex as it is in German – in large part due to the fact that nouns in English do not have a grammatical gender (customers and colleagues includes all genders) – gender neutrality is in fact gaining more and more importance in terms of political correctness. Most notably, it can be applied in the following four areas: job titles, pronouns, forms of address and generic references.

Seeking neutral nouns: gender and jobs

Although most professions in English are gender-neutral (doctor, teacher, translator, engineer, etc.), some jobs do also carry feminine nouns (actress, hostess, stewardess). In such cases, when addressing the profession in general, it’s safest to stick to the masculine or neutral word (actor, host, flight attendant). Similarly, some job titles tend to be grammatically masculine in the first instance (fireman, policeman, salesman). These can be also replaced with gender-neutral alternatives (firefighter, police officer, salesperson/sales representative).

Job descriptions in German are becoming more gender-sensitive as well. Roles advertised nowadays typically include the specification ‘m/w/d’ (literally: male/female/diverse). In English, however, this extra specification is not necessary because, as already mentioned, English nouns are typically neutral. So if, for example, the job advertised is seeking a proofreader (an important role in a company such as ours), then it includes everyone, regardless of their gender.

What they need to know: gender and pronouns

Critics are of the opinion that the use of the pronouns ‘he/she’ restricts people to being classified as either male or female (circles back to the larger issue of gender inclusivity stated earlier). Using a ‘singular they’ can help simplify things when using pronouns in a general context. For example: ‘The customer can decide if they (instead of he/she) want an upgrade.’ What’s important to remember is that consistency is key. So if you go down this path, you need to make sure your text maintains this neutrality throughout:

  • he/she --> they
    his/her --> their
  • him/her --> them
  • himself/herself --> themselves

Dear Mx: gender and forms of address

Choosing an appropriate form of address when writing to someone can prove to be tricky business. An easy workaround here is to use the first name in an informal communication. However, for formal forms of address, your options are:

  • Mr – for a man
  • Mrs – for a married woman
  • Miss – for a young girl or unmarried woman (generally considered outdated today)
  • Ms – a neutral (and preferred) form for all women regardless of marital status

English now also offers the use of ‘Mx’ (a term listed in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2015). As a title that is increasingly found on official forms, for instance, it applies to people who are non-binary or who do not want to provide their gender.

It’s all about people: gender and generic references

In the past, nouns such as ‘man‘, ‘men’ and ‘mankind’ were commonly used to when making generic statements. These masculine nouns have now made way for more gender-neutral words such as ‘person’, ‘people’, ‘humans’, ‘humankind’ or even ‘humanity’, according to the specific context.

This also applies to related words such as ‘man-made’. Neutral alternatives here include ‘hand-made’, ‘hand-built’ or ‘handcrafted’, to name a few.

Putting out gender-related fires

Gendern is now daily business at Wieners+Wieners. As a language service provider (LSP), it has naturally become an integral part of the German-language services we offer our customers, if requested. Our in-house team of experts not only receives regular translation and proofreading requests to ensure that all the ‘gender’ boxes have been ticked, but also consults on the topic at various informative on-site and online events including seminars, webinars, telephone or video consultation, etc.

So if you’re looking for someone professional to put out the flames and bring things under control on both the Gendern and gender front, get in touch – our linguistic firefighters will be happy to help!

You can also read more about the topic of Gendern here.

Saveen Uthappa-Eck

Saveen works as a translator, editor and content writer on the English team. A true-blue language fan, she enjoys crosswords and watching foreign-language shows and movies in her spare time.
Saveen Uthappa-Eck