Gender fairness in German

Gender equality and gender gap is clearly a topic that will be around for a while yet.

Gender equality and gender gap is clearly a topic that will be around for a while yet. Iceland has once again held on to its 1st place in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Index. For 11 years in a row the Nordic nation, with a population of around 350,000, has been the frontrunner in the index, which ranks countries by how close they are to reaching gender equality. Immediately behind Iceland are the other Northern countries of Europe: Norway, Finland and Sweden.

The latest figures show the global gender gap narrowed slightly to 68.6%. But it would appear that neither me nor anyone reading this will live to see complete parity between the sexes: They tell us it will take 99.5 years – unless they ramp up. And worryingly, covid-19 appears to have widened the gap, with more women than men losing their jobs, being stuck looking after the children, etc.

Women in Switzerland earn about a fifth less than men, according to the Federal Equality Office. This means every woman loses out on an average of CHF600 a month. The International Labour Organization recently ranked Switzerland near the bottom of the list when it comes to the gender wage gap in senior roles. (Remember that we did not get the vote at federal level until 1971.)

But, hey, the Swiss are making real efforts when it comes to gender equality. At least on paper and in the corridors of bureaucracy. They are introducing strict rules on how to deal with gender when writing in German – and they are extending these also to French and Italian. So here is a little excursion into the linguistic aspects and complications of gender equality.

“Gendering” in German has come to mean formulating in such a way that both traditional genders are equally covered. And while 10 or 15 years ago that may have been enough, it is not now – but that is the subject of another blog “Asterisks for inclusion”.

German belongs to the “Grammatical gender languages” – a club that also includes Romance and Slavic languages, as opposed to “Natural gender languages” such as Danish, Swedish and English). In German, nouns each have one of three grammatical genders (masculine: der Mann, der Hund; feminine: die Frau, die Katze; and neuter: das Kind, das Pferd). These each have their own pronouns as well: er, sie, es. In many cases, this grammatical gender happens to match the biological gender (sex), but very often it does not. Which gets up some people’s noses.

Most famously, it was Mark Twain who commented on the absurdity of these mis-matches. In his essay “The Awful German Language”, an appendix to “A Tramp Abroad” (1880), he ridicules the fact that a maiden (das Mädchen) has neutral gender whereas a turnip (die Rübe) is feminine:

Gretchen: “Wilhelm, where is the turnip?”

Wilhelm: “She has gone to the kitchen.”

Gretchen: “Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?”

Wilhelm. “It has gone to the opera.”

So, once again, let me emphasize that contrary to Mark grammatical and biological gender have nothing or very little to do with each other.

Gender-equal language came into prominence with the “feminist” linguists in the 1980s who demanded the abolishment of sexist, male-dominated language. They argued that the “second sex” must be given the same visibility. They claimed that this was not simply a question of political correctness, but that language reflects and influences perceptions and attitudes, and perpetuates prejudices. Women would forever be discriminated against and take a back-seat, if their existence was not made obvious in the language. This meant mentioning both sexes equally, even if a term such as “Professoren” would naturally imply the female form (Professorinnen) as well. Alternatively they suggested to use totally “ungendered” terms such as “Lehrkräfte”, “Lehrkörper”, “Universitätspersonal” etc. Where feminine equivalents of masculine terms existed, they should be used (Arzt-Ärztin, Beamter-Beamtin).

Until perhaps 10 years ago, it was quite common to add a little note or footnote in academic papers or other documents explaining that for simplicity the masculine form was being used throughout, even though it was intended and understood that females were included. We used to occasionally add such a note to our translations too, just to be on the safe side. But note that this is no longer permitted, certainly not in Switzerland. Instead both forms have to be spelled out: “Alle Schweizer und Schweizerinnen sind vor dem Gesetz gleich” (All male and female Swiss are equal before the law).

This means that if you stick to the rules, the English sentence:

As representatives of the tenants of cooperative apartments we ask that after a certain period the tenants should be able to become owners or at least usufructuraries of their apartments.

would come out like this in German:

Als Vertreter und Vertreterinnen der Mieterinnen und Mieter von Genossenschaftswohnungen fordern wir, dass die Mieterinnen und Mieter nach einer gewissen Zeit Eigentümerinnen und Eigentümer oder mindestens Nutzniesserinnen und Nutzniesser ihrer Wohnungen werden können.

This is thoroughly bad news for translators who are now obliged to type out a whole raft of extra words when the wordcount is done on the source! Just think how much unpaid typing this will mean in an IT text that keeps talking about “user”, “system administrator”, “project leader” and “project owner (“Benutzer und Benutzerinnen”, “Systemverwalter und Systemverwalterinnen” etc.).

If you want to avoid these inelegant pairings, you can make use, in the plural, of the gender-neutral construct that results from substantivating the participle of verbs: studieren –> Studierende; mitarbeiten –> Mitarbeitende; lernen à Lernende; schaffen à Schaffende; pflegen à Pflegende, etc. etc.

However, you can imagine that too many of these in a text become a total eyesore, very tedious and heavy, as can easily be seen in official publications, which are full of Asylsuchende, Arbeitssuchende, Rentenempfangende and other such constructs which were never part of the German language in the good old days, and which have all the hallmarks of Kafkaesque bureaucracy. One commentator to the debate in Austria (where a similar debate is ongoing) sarcastically points out that researchers reported that they had sent questionnaires to a number of “Schwedinnen und Schweden” (Swedish women and men). This, he says, clearly contravenes the rules; rightfully, these respondents would need to be referred to as “Schwedende” …

Gender-equal formulations have become particularly important in recruitment ads. Here, various options are shown:

  • Senior Consultant (m/w); increasingly: (m/w/d) – for the ‘d’ see the blog “Asterisks for inclusion”
  • Fachkraft Elektrotechnik
  • Referentin/Referent
  • Ärztin/Arzt
  • Immobilienkauffrau/-mann
  • Mitarbeiter/-in; Assistent/-in or Assistant/in)
  • Putzfrau/Putzmann

Many argue that in order to attract women to what are traditionally male professions, it is essential that apprenticeships or job ads ask for “Ingenieurinnen und Ingenieure”, or “Autolackiererinnen und Autolackierer”. Failure to do this will simply prevent women from applying, because they do not feel they are being addressed, or worse, being excluded.

The Verein for Deutsche Sprache (Association for the German language) opposes this vehemently, pointing out that we are heading towards ridiculous and totally inelegant language constructs. In 2019 they published an open signed by many authors, journalists, politicians and others under the provocative title “Stop this gender nonsense”.

There are a few oddities which I find interesting. For example the fact that no-one objects to the use of “Die Person” – a neutral way of describing ANY person without giving a hint about their gender, that happens to be grammatically feminine. Or that, when reading about “Verbrecher” (criminals) no-one seems to object and demand that this should be “Verbrecher und Verbrecherinnen”. Another weird case is “der Mensch” (the human), where a female form (die Menschin) does exist – but is hardly ever used. Equally bizarrely, the German word for “feminine/female” – “weiblich” is a derivation of “das Weib” – denoting a woman, although its grammatical gender is – neutral. Sadly though, all this linguistic gender equality which governments and companies in the German-speaking countries are imposing and on which much precious time is spent writing guidelines has made little difference to promoting gender equality in politics, business and banking. What, I ask myself, can we learn from the Icelanders? Is it really the fact that I came across – that an Icelandic feminist (the first woman to be inaugurated as a priest, excuse me, priestess, in Iceland in 1974) started referring to God as “She”? Or what is their secret?

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