Focus areasEqual Opportunities
Gender-Sensitive Language

Gender Sensitive Language

This handout aims to inform and encourage readers to meet the challenges of non-discriminatory, respectful and gender-sensitive language. On publication, we received enquiries on how to apply the recommendations to the English language. This handout aims to provide some assistance. 

As with German or other languages, there are so far no unified language rules – there are, however, a series of recommendations and ideas for gender-sensitive language. Generally, the English language offers many advantages, as there is no grammatical gender (the article the is used universally) and adjectives have no gender-specific endings. In other words, the language is ideal for gender-neutral usage.

  • In General

    As in our German handbook, we also recommend checking with each text, occasion and target group – be it a project application, term paper, newsletter, report, lecture or email – who is being addressed and what is being said.

    As many formulations in English are gender neutral, it is important to consider where gender should be made visible (e.g. female scientists, if only females are meant) and where a gender-neutral formulation is more appropriate (e.g. police officer instead of policeman).

    Of equal importance in English is ensuring that women and men are consistently addressed in the same way. If one person is addressed by first name, surname and title, the other should be addressed in the same way.

  • Nouns and Professional Titles

    In English, most nouns and professional titles are gender neutral: scientist, scientific staff, academic staff, technician, engineer. Many professional titles that are or appear to be gender specific (stewardess, policeman) have developed from the 80s onwards into gender-neutral formulations:

    instead of

    gender neutral

    stewardess, steward

    flight attendant

    chairman, chairwoman

    chairperson

    barman, barmaid

    bartender

    policeman

    police officer

    If one wishes to make clear which gender a person has, gender neutral professional titles can be prefixed by the words male or female. This makes sense, for example, when a report refers to the proportion of women: The number of female scientists in the engineering sciences increased by 5%.    

  • Gender-specific Nouns

    English also has gender-specific nouns, which can easily be avoided if they are replaced by gender- neutral alternatives. Man, and words ending in man are the most used gender-specific nouns:

    instead of

    gender neutral

    man

    person, individual

    mankind

    humanity, people, humankind

    man-made

    synthetic

    manpower

    workforce, labourforce, workers, staff

  • Addressing People

    Some of us may still have learned at school that a married woman is addressed as Mrs (in British English without a full stop, in American with), and that an unmarried woman is a Miss. Since the marital status of the woman is often unknown and an equivalent term to Mr was required, Ms has in the meantime become established as the mode of address for all women.

    Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary has officially included the term Mx in language usage. This mode of address can be used where a person’s gender is unknown or where a person identifies as neither female nor male.

    Apart from that, I would recommend formulations using both first name and surname – in this way one can not only avoid misinterpretations of gender with international names but also address persons who identify as neither male nor female.

    instead of

    preferable

    Dear Ms McCloud

    Dear Susan McCloud

    Dear Mr Smith

    Dear Sam Smith

    Dear Sir or Madam

    Dear Reader, Dear Colleagues, Dear Service Representatives

  • Pronouns

    In principle, English describes all males as he, all females as she, and all non-humans as it. There are, however, no singular pronouns referring to both sexes, like man in German or on in French. In English, the generic use of he for both sexes is widespread – in the meantime some gender-sensitive alternatives have become established in everyday language:

    Suggestion

    Example

    he or she
    his or her

    The employee must submit a letter stating why he or she is interested in the training course.

    he/she
    his/her

    Each student should save his/her questions until the end.

    S/he

    Someone left an umbrella in the office. Would s/he please collect it?

    one

    A staff member in Antarctica earns less than one in New York.

    who

    A student who is not satisfied with the professor’s decision can talk to the Ombudsperson.

    singular they

    Before submitting your document, send it to the focal point for their review; they will return it to you with comments.

    The use of one or who cannot always be applied, so that the use of the singular they has become widely accepted if there are no more precise indications of the gender of a person or group of persons.

  • Pronouns for Non-binary People

    In English as in German, and especially in the LGBTIQ+/Queer-Community, there are efforts to use alternatives to the pronouns he or she, to be able particularly to address non-binary persons.

    Suggestion

    Example

    they, their, them

    Sasha just started at the university. They can’t wait to meet fellow students.

    Robin is currently working on their master’s thesis.

    stop using pronouns, instead using only the name

    Did you already meet Kim? No, who is Kim? Kim is my new colleague.

    They, their, them have become established in everyday language as alternatives to he, his, him or she, hers, her, as well as the formulation completely without pronoun. Both require a little practice, but are easy to implement. Depending on the gender identity and preference of the person concerned, they might also prefer being addressed using alternative pronouns, e.g. ve, ver, vis, verself. We recommend you to have the courage to ask the person what pronoun they prefer: “What pronouns do you use?” You can also include a sentence in your Email signature: “We try to address all people with their preferred pronouns and name. How may I address you in the future?” or “Please use the pronoun she when addressing me. How may I address you?”

    [1] non-binary = collective term for gender identities that are neither exclusively male nor female, i.e. are outside the binary division into man and woman
    [2] LGBTIQ+ = Abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Trans, Intersexual, Queer and more