Let’s start off this blog post by explaining to our non-German readers the specifics that require “gendering” in the German language. For most German nouns referring to living beings there is a male and a female term. In the past it used to be the norm to only use the male version of the word when addressing a (most likely gender-mixed) group. With society being more aware of diversity, equality and inclusion, more and more people demand alternatives that address all genders.
The issue people want to address by using gender-sensitive language is one of inclusion and opening up opportunities for female and non-binary persons. Studies show: Most people think exclusively of men when they hear a sentence only using the male form of a word. This should not come as a surprise as language shapes thoughts. This is why it is all the more important that the words we use express and promote diversity and tolerance – especially when stressing the thought of ending discrimination.
The German press follows a moral code to consequently avoid discrimination. Of course, this is not the only reason why media professionals should reflect societal diversity as a whole. Gender-appropriate language is an important tool in this theme. Particularly as it supports the decision of more and more editorial departments to introduce “gendering”: “The generic masculine should no longer be the standard,” writes influential news outlet Der Spiegel in its standards. And even the biggest national news programme Tagesschau is increasingly using gender-appropriate language on both TV and social media and – displaying a huge support in German mainstream media for a change towards more diversity and an open society.
Society starts to re-think
It is not just media that is increasingly paying attention to gender-sensitive language; corporations in all industries are also taking action. Microsoft, for example, uses inclusive language in its internal and external communications. According to a new survey by German national daily FAZ and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, 16 out of the 30 companies listed on the German stock index DAX use gender-sensitive language and justify this decision with the desire for non-discriminatory interaction.
As a PR agency, we have put a lot of thought on how to deal with the issue of diversity in our communication. During this decision-making process, our customers and media partners served as orientation: Who in this group is already “gendering” today? Which media do gender and what form do they use?
In a discussion between language conservatism, reader-friendliness, and search engine optimization on the one hand, and openness, equality, and language accuracy on the other, we became convinced that we want to promote the social rethinking towards more gender neutrality, tolerance, and openness through the conscious use of gender-sensitive language.
A choice is made: Why we use the colon
Moving on to the question of “how” to implement gender-sensitive language: What actually is proper gendering and how can PR agencies implement it? How do we gender without distracting from the content or disrupting the flow of reading? In the meantime, various types of gender-appropriate language have been established, including the gender asterisk, the underscore, or even the slash. Some of them are quite obvious in the flow of the text, others are rather inconspicuous.
We eventually decided to choose the colon. This is intended to appeal to all gender identities and is easy to type. In addition, we try to use more neutral generic terms. By doing so, we want to get into the habit of avoiding the generic masculine and using gender-neutral wording.
To us as a PR agency it is not only important to deal with the issue of gender-sensitive language ourselves, but also to advise our clients on this matter. This requires an agency-wide understanding of the topic, as well as a confident handling of all common variants. To guarantee this, we have set up a task force, regularly engage in internal training, and keep an eye on the public debate and latest developments.
The implementation in our everyday work
The decision to deal with the topic of gendering was made during an agency meeting, when a colleague’s inquiry immediately led to a lively discussion. It was exciting to listen to the different views – from colleagues who have already integrated gender-sensitive language into their daily work, but also from colleagues who had not yet addressed the topic.
In the end, we came to a common conclusion: As a PR agency, language is a central aspect of our daily work. We must therefore be aware of the external impact it makes and our responsibility in dealing with it. It is up to us to support a language shift towards a more inclusive world view – that is what we intend to do in the future.
Of course, such a vast change does not simply happen overnight. It takes time to break up language patterns that have been shaped over years if not decades.
Nevertheless, we at Schwartz Public Relations want to start using gender-sensitive language consistently in our communications. Therefore, we will also gradually adjust our own channels and communication materials. A start has already been made: this text – or rather the German version of it – is written gender-neutrally.