“Language creates reality” ---- Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In Boroditsky’s experiment, the researchers asked Spanish- and German- speaking subjects to describe an object, such as a key, that had a different grammatical gender in the two languages. The team showed subjects a key, but did not say the Spanish or German words for it. The grammatical gender of the Spanish word for "key" is feminine. The experimenters found that Spanish speakers tended to describe the key with words that fit the stereotypes for women, such as "small", "beautiful", etc., even though the researchers did not verbally remind them of the gender of the "key." In contrast, the German word for "key" is a masculine word, and German speakers tend to describe it with words that fit the stereotypes for men, such as "utility," "heavy," and "powerful." In artificial experimental settings, the gender system of language does seem to influence users. But what about in the real world? Researchers surveyed more than 100 countries and their languages in 2012 and concluded that gender parity is worse in countries where grammatical gender is used in the first language than in countries where the first language is gender-neutral. That is, language constructs our perception of reality.
As tech becomes more pervasive, the language which limits our thoughts must become more equitable and so does the language we use in the products we build. The language used in our project, which is German, is heavily gendered. It means addressing groups of people highly depends on their gender. Currently, there is no collective noun that encompasses all genders. Furthermore, German applies the “generic masculine” to groups of people as default, meaning that it could refer to women, non-binary people, etc., too. In order to settle this imperfection, we implemented five rules in our project based on research by our Experience Designers, Anja Gerhard and MengMeng Yan::
Avoidance is the best option for screen readers and readability as long as the word is familiar.
a) Avoid addressing people in a gendered way
Don’t mention gender if not necessary. See the following example, it’s not necessary to mention the customer's gender if it’s just to say “Hello”.
Guten Morgen Herr Horst Hinkelbaum → Guten Morgen Horst Hinkelbaum (Good morning Mr. Horst Hinkelbaum -> Good morning Horst Hinkelbaum)
b) Avoid the terms "male" & "female".
"Male" and "female" are defined biologically and are often used to deprive transgender people of their identity. If gender is absolutely required, we use: man, woman, non-binary/diverse.
c) Avoid gendered parts in composite words.
If the context renders a composite word superfluous we can remove it directly.
In context of a customer: Kundenanliegen (Request from customers, men) → Anliegen (request)
If the text permits, we can split the composite; this is usually possible when formulating sentences, but harder for titles.
Otherwise replace gendered parts with gender-neutral words.
salesman → salesperson
Mitarbeiter (clerk, man) → Mitarbeitende Person ( clerk-person)
d) Avoid gendered words.
By using noun suffixes (like -er, -ist in English) to represent the group of people by what they have in common.
Teamleiter (team leader, man)→ Teamleitung (the people who lead the team, no gender implication, the word ’leiten’ is a German verb and is used as a noun here with the noun-suffix)
Vertreter (agent, man) → Vertretung (agent)
e) Avoid generic masculinism for indefinite pronouns in German
German uses masculine pronouns to represent all of the gender groups, which is what we are trying to avoid. In the following example, we try to avoid the masculine pronoun ‘der’. But you can use wer (someone), niemand (nobody), jemand (someone/anyone), or the passive voice.
Wer die Unterlagen benötigt, der soll sich beim Sekretariat melden. (If someone needs the material, he should register at the secretariat)→
Wer die Unterlagen benötigt, melde sich beim Sekretariat . (If someone needs the material, register at the secretaries)
In the example: The word 'der' is a masculine relative pronoun that is used to represent all gender groups.
2）Gendering to be mindful of different gender identities
If the users want to be mindful of the people who are addressed, as they can be of any gender. For example, when we display hints on the product to guide the user to select the desired services for customers, e.g. Welche Services wünscht der_die Kund_in? (Which services does the customer want?) Kundin -> feminine customer, “_” -> represents the space between man and woman.
3）Be specific about data usage
Be specific on who you address.
E.g. title of detail page of employee names.
Hassan Abbas: Mitarbeiter ( employee, man) → Hassan Abbas
Be specific about what you need data for.
If it’s just their correct title needed, instead of their gender:
EN: Mr, Ms
GE: Herr, Frau
If it’s just their correct pronouns needed, instead of their gender
EN: he/him, she/her, they/them
GE: er/ihn, sie/ihr, keine Pronomen
4）Balance agentic and communal language
Because of our socialization, men feel more included by agentic language and women feel more included by communal language. Be mindful of the words you use—try and use a mixture of both types of language to describe everyone.
Agentic language refers to language which focuses on agency, self-orientation and achievement.
EN: ambition, authority, enforce, assert, power, force
GE: Ehrgeiz, Durchsetzungsvermögen, direkt, bestimmt, -kraft
Communal language refers to language which focuses on community, harmony and collaboration
EN: commit, empathy, engage, group, relation, support
GE: beratend, interpersonal, Gruppe, kollaborieren, -hilfe
5）Test acceptance and educate
After we implement all of the modifications, we introduce them in user sessions, then test and observe the responses: did they notice, and if so, was their reaction positive or negative? Will it affect their understanding? Do they accept such expressions? Also, explain to users why gender-inclusive language is important when needed. We want to make sure that our intentions are understood and accepted.
For example, ‘Kundendetails anzeigen’ (see customer details) has gender implications in German. We changed it to ‘Siehe mehr Details’ (see more details), but found that users did not understand what these details were about, so we finally changed it to ‘Personendetails anzeigen’ (see personal details), which avoided gendering and guaranteed the users could still understand every function of the product.
Language violence, oppression and discrimination are not just exclusive to gender, the same issues of language arise with groups such as BIPoC, LGBTQI+ and etc. It’s better to take a moment to think about it in the design phase and make sure no one is left out.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.