July 11, 2018

Feminists Target German Language as Sexist

USA Today (07/09/18) Davis, Austin

Women’s rights advocates in Germany contend that women still lag behind men in the workplace. The biggest obstacle to their advancement: the sexist nature of the German language itself.
In English, a doctor is a doctor and a lawyer is a lawyer, regardless of whether that person is male or female. In German, professional titles and nouns reflect the gender of a person. A male doctor is an Arzt and a female doctor is an Arztin. Most job vacancies use only male nouns, and the national anthem pays homage to the “Fatherland.”

As the #MeToo movement hits Germany, the language has been catapulted to the center of a national debate about gender equality.

Gender bias finds its way into “every nook and cranny of society,” says Luise Pusch, a German linguist specializing in feminist speech. The predominance of male nouns describing job openings means “women often have a hard time imagining that they’re also being sought out for professional roles,” Pusch explains. “They’re not only being shut out grammatically, but also through their own image of this profession.” 

“Germans tend to see themselves as very progressive when talking about things like maternity leave,” says Senta Goertler, an associate professor of German and second language studies at Michigan State University. “But looking at the language and statistics about equal opportunities for men and women, they really aren’t.”

Calls by activists to make German more gender-neutral have mostly fallen flat. Germany’s Council for Orthography, which sets rules for spelling and grammar, shelved a debate about the issue. In March, a woman lost a lawsuit against the German bank Sparkasse for the right to be addressed using female-only nouns. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel proved unhelpful to the movement by dismissing calls to change the national anthem to refer to the “homeland” instead of the “fatherland.” Such roadblocks are unsurprising in Germany, where people “don’t seem to be very conscious of the connection” between the language and sexist behavior, says Goertler. 

Sandra Pravica, a university researcher and philosopher on maternity leave who struggled for years to break into a male-dominated field, says changes in the language would greatly expand women’s job opportunities. “These feminine forms (of nouns) suffer from the fact that they were not used for years and were not considered to be on par with the masculine form,” she says. “It would make a lot of sense if schoolchildren could learn that there are two forms of nouns from a young age.”

The fact that a debate over making German more gender-neutral is happening at all is something to celebrate, Pusch says. “They used to call all of us crazy,” she says of those who advocated for language changes decades ago. “But now the issue has arrived into the mainstream of society.