An editor’s perspective on gender-inclusive language
Diversity is becoming an increasingly important topic for both universities and businesses. By valuing people in all their differences, you can reach a larger audience because they are more likely to be addressed by inclusive content. Language is an important factor in this topic. So, we as editors should consider diversity in our work. Gender-inclusive language is a good start to do so.
What is gender-inclusive language?
In many languages, the universal male form is used predominantly in texts. For example, if you were to write about a non-specific professor, you would automatically use the pronouns “he” and “his”. In German and other languages like French or Italian, nouns are additionally affected by their grammatical gender: The word “student” is not gender-neutral: we have “Student” as male form and “Studentin” as female form.
But gender-inclusive language is not only about men and women. There are also people who don’t identify as male or female. They see themselves in-between or completely outside the binary system of men and women. That means they are non-binary or genderqueer. People can also be intersexual or transgender.
There are several studies that prove that women and people of other genders feel less addressed in texts that use only the male form. As a result, a large group of people is excluded by those texts. This also applies to gendered professions or words with sexist connotations such as secretary (better: administrative assistant), chairman (better: chairperson) or stewardess (better: flight attendant). Therefore, everyone should use gender-inclusive language — not only in their thesis but also in general.
Non-gendered vs. gendered languages
Gender-inclusive language means using both male and female forms or gender-neutral options. In non-gendered languages like English, it’s fairly easy to be inclusive. You can say “he or she” or just use the pronouns “they” and “them”.
In gendered languages like German, however, it’s more complex. In German we can’t use the 3rd person plural (“they” in English) as a pronoun for 3rd person singular. That would be grammatically wrong. Our nouns also have grammatical genders: the coffee machine is female (die Kaffeemaschine), the pencil is male (der Stift), the book is neuter (das Buch). When it comes to people there is always a male and a female form: male students are “Studenten”, whereas female students are “Studentinnen”.
Now, we have different options for addressing all genders: the gender-neutral version would be “Studierende”. This is a noun created from the verb “studieren” (to study). To address both male and female, you could use “Studentinnen und Studenten” or “Student/innen” or “StudentInnen” (the capital “I” signals that both forms are meant). To represent people with other diverse genders, we use the “gender gap”: “Student*innen” or “Student_innen” or “Student:innen”. The symbol between the male and the female form stands for all genders between male and female or outside the binary gender system.
Examples of gender-inclusive language in different countries
This year the law in Germany was changed: Intersexual people can now use a third gender option in their passport and other official documents. Similar laws exist in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Malta, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and several other countries around the world. In my opinion, this means we have to think about a language that includes all the diverse genders we have worldwide.
As you might have noticed, German gender-inclusive language is complicated! It would be much easier if we also had a third pronoun. Maybe we should do it like Sweden, where a new pronoun was introduced in 2015. In Swedish you can now use “han” (she), “hon” (he) or “hen” (gender neutral pronoun).
In other languages there are similar ideas, such as adding an “x” instead of a male or female ending. You can find examples like “Mx” (as an addition to “Mr” and “Mrs”) and “Professx” or “Latinx” in English, German and Spanish. In French, like in German, it’s common to use both the male and the female form — for example “étudiant-e-s” or “étudiantEs” (“students”).
In many languages like Italian or Russian, gender-diversity is not considered so much as of yet. But the example of Sweden shows that languages can change. So, we can assume that gender-inclusive language will become important in more and more countries.
How to use gender-inclusive language in academic research
Here in Germany, more and more universities already encourage their students to use gender-inclusive language in their thesis. It can help to dismantle stereotypes and reduce gender bias. Here are a few tips on how to handle gender-diversity in academic research:
- If gender-inclusive language is new for you: Do some research first. You will find a great deal of information online. Many universities offer special guidelines for this topic. You can also read books or studies if you want.
- Check the guidelines of your university. They might recommend a special form of gender-inclusive language.
- If you edit a text that is gender-inclusive, make sure that gender-inclusive language is used consistently.
What else can I do to appreciate diversity in texts?
As I said earlier, diversity matters, especially in texts. That is why, as an editor and copywriter, I specialize in inclusive communication that appreciates diversity. I offer my customers a Diversity Check, with which I check their texts according to various diversity criteria. In my work, not only gender-inclusive language is important. There are six dimensions of diversity that I consider within my work:
- sexual orientation
- ethnic origin and nationality
- religion and worldview
Inclusive language does not only show respect to diverse groups of people. Readers, potential customers, writers and companies benefit from it. You can reach a larger target group with authentic content that shows appreciation for diversity. Using inclusive language can be a strategy for strengthening your customer loyalty and your employer branding, as it means that your audience can find themselves in your texts, take your stories or information with them, and support a person or company that shares their values. More and more, people are choosing to buy from sustainable businesses that take on social responsibility.
About Lucia Clara Rocktäschel
I am a freelance copywriter and editor specializing in inclusive communication that appreciates diversity. I first encountered this topic when I wrote my bachelor thesis on diversity marketing using the representation of the LGBT+ target group in TV advertising as an example. After working as a copywriter at a marketing agency for a while, I had the idea to combine my knowledge of diversity marketing with writing. Now I help both companies and students make their texts and online appearances more inclusive.