German language For Members

Gendern: Why German speakers get fired up over gender-neutral language

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Gendern: Why German speakers get fired up over gender-neutral language
Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

This word has all to do with how to use German sensitively - but that doesn't always mean it doesn't rub people the wrong way. So what do both sides of the argument have to say about 'gendern', and why is it so controversial?


Why do I need to know gendern?

Because you're bound to see this discussion crop up fairly often in German-speaking countries like Austria, and it's useful to know where you stand in the debate so that you make decisions about how you use the German language. 

What does it mean?

As you might have recognised, gendern is a verb built out of the English word "gender". To gender someone - or gendern in German - is to make an assessment of their gender identity, usually by defining them as either male or female.

As in English, this creates a bit of a linguistic issue when it comes to describing people in various professions. Traditionally, people often referred to a male actor as an actor and a female actor as an actress, and if they didn't know the gender or were speaking generally, the male version (actor) was used as the default. Over time, however, it's become standard practice to simply use gender neutral terms like police officer, firefighter, and so on, and it's also perfectly possible to talk about a "judge", "teacher" or "painter" without specifying a gender. 

In German, however, the issue isn't quite so simple. Generally, although some gender-neutral forms to describe certain groups exists (i.e. Studierende rather than Student/-in), these are far from the norm, and due to the gendered nature of definite articles, it can be very difficult to speak in a gender-neutral way. In recent years, this has led to a debate on how best to talk about the world around us without creating the impression that certain jobs, professions or groups of people only consist of men. 


When used in German, therefore, gendern describes the practice of trying to make both genders visible in your speech - which will often involve adding the female form or female plural form (i.e. -in or -innen) in some way alongside the male one. However, even when it comes to finding the supposedly right way to gendern, even academics and linguists can't quite agree on what that is.

What are my options when it comes to gendern?

There are many options in German for trying to speak in a gender neutral way - and even Duden, a standard High German dictionary, says people should be free to pick the one that suits them best.

One option is to use a pause while speaking and an asterisk, colon or underscore while writing, i.e. Schauspieler:innen (actors), Bauer*innen, (farmers) or Forscher_innen (researchers). The idea here is not only to consider both male and female genders, but also acknowledge people with a less clear-cut gender identity by adding the asterisk or space of some kind. However, it's worth pointing out that this practice - and particularly the so-called Gendersternchen, or gender star / asterisk - does have its critics.


In fact, current Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) intends to ban using the gender star in public administration in Austria, an announcement made ahead of the 2024 election campaign. Even if enacted though, private businesses would be free to use it.

So it doesn't mean you shouldn't use it if you want to, but there are other options, such as:

  • Finding an alternative, gender-neutral formulation (i.e. Reinigungskräften instead of Putzfrauen)
  • Using a simple dash and/or a forward-slash (i.e. Polizist/-in)
  • Mentioning both genders alongside each other (i.e. Freunden und Freundinnen) 
  • Swapping between the genders while speaking 
  • Using either the male or female form as a generic term (a little like in English) 

If you want to simplify your speech or writing while still being politically correct, another option is to use an abbreviation in brackets after spelling something out the first time. For example, if you're talking about lawyers you could say Anwalte und Anwältinnen and then add (AuA) to make it clear you'll be using that abbreviation from now on.  

Others, meanwhile, simply say it makes speech clunky and doesn't usually follow correct grammatic rules of the German language.

However, proponents of gendern argue that language has a profound impact on the way we think and see the world, and that making a small change to how we speak is a major step to a more inclusive and socially just world. For example, if a young girl grows up only hearing the male form of GP (Hausarzt), they argue, she may get the impression that this profession is only appropriate for men. If, on the hand, both genders are made visible, this can boost her self-esteem and her vision of what can be possible. 

READ ALSO: Austrian court moves to recognise third gender


Use it like this:

Es herrscht mal wieder eine Debatte über das Gendern in den Medien. 

There's one again a debate about gendering in the media.

Meine Meinung nach ist gendern mehr sozial gerecht. 

In my opinion, gendering is more socially just.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also