Ladies First German Universities Edit Out Gender Bias

This week, the second German university in a month's time decided to banish generic masculine forms of titles like "professor" from all official documents. They will be replaced with the feminine form, a decision that has reignited an old gender equality debate.
The University of Potsdam is getting more feminine.

The University of Potsdam is getting more feminine.

Foto: Bernd Settnik/ picture alliance / dpa

The governing body of Germany's Potsdam University ruled this week that the feminine forms of titles like Professor and Research Assistant will become the standard generic reference in official university documents.

It was the second university to make such a decision in the last month, but controversy broke out when several news organizations, including this one, began reporting that the feminine form would have to be applied in specific cases, meaning that male professors would have to be called "Herr Professorin" (literally, Mr. female professor). The reports sparked a wave of public ridicule and disapproval.

But on Thursday, the university posted a statement to their website, insisting that the appropriate gender-specific titles will continue to be used. "The University of Potsdam has no intention of applying this to concrete individuals," spokeswoman Birgit Mangelsdorf confirms.

Politics or Readability?

According to Mangelsdorf, the university's decision to change the wording is primarily pragmatic. In German, nouns referring to people are gender-specific, with articles changing accordingly. A non-gendered reference to "the professor" can get a bit unwieldy: "Die/der Professor/Professorin," the so-called slash formulation, is the way the generic reference has been handled in the many universities that discarded a male generic form in the 1980s. The new ruling simply substitutes this with the generic feminine form, "die Professorin."

Though she says that "considerations of a gender-equitable language play a major role at the university," Mangelsdorf insists that "the main aim of the revision is readability."

But even if some of the negative attention was misplaced, it highlights ongoing discomfort within German universities on the subject of gender reform. Sexism remains a considerable problem within academia in Germany. According to the Federal Office of Statistics, women make up only about 19 percent of chairholders at German universities, and only 25 percent of post-doctoral candidates. In traditionally male-dominated fields like mathematics and engineering, the percentage of female professors hovers around 10 percent.

Last month, the University of Leipzig became the first German university to officially implement the generic feminine form, using it to refer to all professors in a new version of the university constitution. A footnote explains the reason for the usage.

"I see it more as self-defense," said the economist Dr. Friederike Maier, a professor at the University of Economics and Law (HWR) in Berlin, in a conversation with SPIEGEL last month about the Leipzig decision. "So many people use the masculine wording and make a note that it also applies to women. It doesn't feel very inclusive. Therefore, I think it's good to say, 'This time we're turning the tables.'"

'Deeds, Not Words'

Not everyone is convinced, however, that altering linguistic constructions is the best way to level the playing field.

"We find the use of the feminine generic highly unusual and beyond something that just takes getting used to," says Dr. Matthias Jaroch, a spokesman for the Association of German Universities. Changing words around, he says, doesn't bring anyone closer to gender equality .

"This is a discussion that took place in Germany 20 or 30 years ago," says Jaroch, "and when we open it again we also re-open these old ideological fronts." He adds: "That doesn't help us to move forward on the subject and institute real equality." Programs designed for women and initiatives to help integrate work and family are the kinds of things that actually help advance the cause, he says. "It's about deeds, not words."

A Long Time Coming

"Language is not something that's separate from deeds," counters renowned German feminist Luise Pusch, who has made major contributions to the field of feminist linguistics. "If you want to change the reality, you have to change language too," says Pusch, who sees the feminine generic, in part, as "empathy training" for men, so that they, too, can experience "not really knowing whether they're being referred to."

If the current discussion sounds familiar to many Germans, that may be because it was a hot topic here decades ago. In 1994, ahead of national elections, researchers asked groups of students what candidates the leading political parties should consider for the role of chancellor, while altering between generic masculine and gender-neutral formulations. Respondents were far less likely to name potential female candidates when they had been asked in the generic masculine. Another German study in 1999 found that, when asked in the generic masculine form, students who had been asked to name their favorite writer, actor, musician or athlete reliably named fewer women.

As one of the original proponents of the generic feminine, Pusch is extremely pleased that the tide finally seems to be turning. But she also points out that the use of the generic feminine should be seen as just an "interim solution" to mollify ongoing inequalities. It's not about permanently catering language to women, she says, "but every politician knows the importance of symbolic action."

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