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Gender-inclusive language in digital products (Part 2)

Guidelines for gender-inclusive and accessible writing with examples in German and English language


In part one of this two part article series, you can read about the need for gender-inclusive and accessible language and the challenges these two dimensions bring to written content in digital products. 


To address this challenge, consider the following five guidelines:


  1. Prefer neutrality to gendered language
  2. Use gendered language to create awareness of different gender identities
  3. Be specific about data usage
  4. Balance agentic and communal language
  5. Ensure user acceptance and adoption


These can be easily adapted to the needs of your language and product.


1) Prefer neutrality to gendered language


In many situations a neutral way of addressing people is possible in both English and German. Considering human readability and screen reader accessibility, oftentimes this is the best option as long as the used alternatives are well-established.


a) Address specific people in a gender-neutral way

Hello Ms Park → Hello Joo-Eun Park


b) Address generic people in a gender-neutral way

If your product addresses people generically, use gender-neutral pronouns. For instance, if you address a generic employee, use “they” in English or gender-neutral paraphrases in the respective language of your product to not default to the generic masculine “he” when you actually mean a vast range of gender identities.


c) Avoid the terms “male” & “female”

"Male" and "female" are defined biologically based on reproductive capabilities. These definitions are often used to deprive transgender people of their identity and should therefore be avoided. If gender is absolutely required, consider using: man, woman, non-binary/diverse.


d) Avoid gendered parts in composite words

Replace gendered parts with gender-neutral words or non-gendered suffixes in composite words.

  • salesman → salesperson
  • German example: Teamleiter (masculine term for team lead) → Teamleitung

If the context renders a composite word superfluous, remove it. For instance, on a user preferences page, it is clear that the page refers to a specific user. In this case, the word “User” (in German: “Benutzer”, which is the masculine form for user) in “User Settings” (in German: “Benutzereinstellungen”) becomes obsolete, and “Settings” (in German: “Einstellungen”) alone is sufficient.


2) Use gender-inclusive language to create awareness of different gender identities


As the German language is gendered by default, we can lean into this default and leverage it to disrupt the very gendered language. We make use of this feature — and we deliberately call this a feature — by gendering in cases where we want the people using our product to consciously be aware of different gender identities a referred person can have. For instance, we have the situation where the user selects services for a customer:


“Welche Services wünscht der*die Kund*in” — “Which services does the customer wish for?”


In this case, we want the customer contact person to be mindful that the customer can have any identity.


As mentioned above, several gender markers persist in German, and if the settings of a screen reader allow it, they can be resolved into a gap while reading. If gender-neutral phrasing is not possible, the German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV) recommends the gender star (*), as it is currently the most commonly used marker. However, gender markers semantically clash with other usages of these characters. For example, the gender star (*) can be confused with an asterisk (*), which is commonly used for mandatory fields in forms. Whatever gender marker is chosen, it should stay consistent within a product and be adjusted if recommendations are updated by communities of people with disabilities.


3) Be specific about data usage


When met with requirements to collect a person's gender, dig into the value based relevance for collecting such intimate information. It is a very personal part of their identity and oftentimes isn’t actually necessary, especially if gender-neutral language is applied. 


a) Be specific on who you address

For instance, we have the employee page of Hassan Abbas. For the page title, instead of using “Mitarbeiter” — masculine word for employee — we can use the name itself as the title: Hassan Abbas.


b) Be specific about what you need data for

  • Does the application need gender, or does it need to know how to address a person?
  • Is a person’s gender truly relevant to the application or is a pronoun needed for addressing?


4) Balance agentic and communal language


Language can fall into two types: Agentic and Communal.


  • Agentic language refers to language which focuses on agency, self-orientation and achievement, e.g. ambition, authority, enforce, assert, power, force.
  • Communal language refers to language which focuses on community, harmony and collaboration, e.g. commit, empathy, engage, group, relation, support.


Studies have shown that men feel more included by agentic language and women feel more included by communal language. Balance agentic and communal language to include everyone.


5) Ensure user acceptance and adoption


Ensure that language in your product is understandable and accepted.


a) Test the language

Apply gender-inclusive language in designs which undergo usability tests. It is advisable not to actively mention the language. This way, it is possible to test whether the gendered language affects users’ understanding. 

For example, “Kunde” in “Kundendetails anzeigen” (translates to ”customer” in “see customer details”) is a masculine word for customer in German language. We changed this to the more generic “Mehr Details anzeigen” (”see more details”). This resulted in people not understanding what these details referred to, so we finally changed it to “Personendetails anzeigen” (“see personal details”), which still avoided gendering and ensured understandability.


b) Educate your relevant stakeholders and yourself

Not everyone accepts gender-inclusive language. Stakeholders, including users and business stakeholders, might ask for generic masculine for the sake of familiarity, but language is evolving and so is gender-inclusive language. 

A quick web search helps to familiarize yourself with up-to-date developments. Use these insights to clarify the necessity of gender-inclusive language to your stakeholders.


c) Be agile

Adopt these guidelines according to the needs of your language and the queer community speaking your language. Apply the lessons learned from testing and educating.


Next Steps


Gender-inclusive language is not accepted by everyone. It faces opposition and ridicule, and this stifles the voice of queer communities all over the world. Nevertheless, these communities continue to develop and improve language. 


Strive to listen to the voices of the unheard and keep the language in your products modular. Continuously incorporate improvements to gender-inclusive language while maintaining readability and accessibility.


This article focused on gender-inclusiveness and accessibility. However, language is a tool which can harm beyond these two axes. To move forward from gender-inclusive and accessible writing towards inclusive and equitable writing, the Thoughtworks group of designers welcomes you to challenge and extend our guidelines, share experiences from the context of our languages and drive inclusive language together.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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