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Gender-neutral Language

Recommendations for Gender-neutral Language

Many questions and uncertainties still surround the issue of gender-neutral language at the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB). It often seems that the natural flow of words is interrupted unnecessarily when both male and female terms (e.g., “chairmen and chairwomen”) are used. Furthermore, the persistent use of such language can – according to frequent criticism – render running text and presentations overly long and complicated.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about gender-neutral language at RUB. Women already represent the majority of students or staff in some faculties and fields; in such cases, the use of the masculine to represent both genders would not be indicative of the true situation. Moreover, the application of gender-neutral language will ensure more inclusivity for women in faculties and fields where they are still under-represented.

Nevertheless, the aim of keeping all RUB documents clear and easily comprehensible should not be sacrificed.

How can RUB implement a gender-neutral language in practice?

  • Choose predominantly gender-neutral wording, e.g., “spokesperson” and “chairperson” or “chair” instead of “spokesman”/“spokeswoman” and “chairman”/“chairwoman”, “administrative assistant” instead of “secretary”, and “humankind” or “humanity” rather than “mankind”.
  • For professions in which female and male terms exist, use gender-neutral terms such as comedian, fire-fighter, postal worker, etc. for women as well as men.
  • When gender-neutral words are unavailable, use word pairings, e.g., chairmen and chairwomen, writing them out fully.
  • Do not us “he” or “his” to represent both men and/or women; use “he or she”, “his or hers”, (or with a slash, such as “he/she”), or even a different construction altogether. A change in sentence structure may sometimes reduce the awkwardness or lengthiness of some gender-neutral wording. Feel free to use your linguistic creativity in such cases. For example, in sentences such as “a professor who teaches his/her students…”, a way around the problem may be to use the plural: “professors who teach their students... “.
  • In German, word pairs always begin with the female term followed by the male term.
  • Use word pairs mainly in running text. In tables and presentations, the use of the slash may be appropriate to save space (e.g., he/she).
  • If referring exclusively to men or women, this should be clear from the language used, e.g. female academic.
  • If an adjective is needed, it is “female” and not “woman” in such phrases as “female researcher”, “female president”.

See the relevant German-language webpage for suggestions of gender-neutral terms for some common words and phrases in German.