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‘Not so Guten’

Why some say the German language is sexist — and what they want to do about it

By WITW Staff on July 10, 2018

What’s a country to do when gender bias is so deep it’s apparently embedded in the national language?

Well, speak up, to start.

Germany is being thrust into the gender equality debate, but not for the reasons you might think. While the #MeToo movement has found its way to the fatherland, there’s one little issue — over the not-so-little fact that the country’s called the “fatherland.”

The German language possesses plenty of quirks and long-held practices that many woman and advocacy groups are now saying are sexist. Take, for example, a simple job description. In German, there are male and female nouns for certain professions. Job listings will often only list the male noun, which some are saying is exclusionary and reinforces the gender gap in the workplace.

The predominance of male nouns describing job openings means “girls often have a hard time imagining that they’re also being sought out,” Luise Pusch, a German linguist specializing in feminist speech told USA Today. “They’re not only being shut out grammatically, but also through their own image of this profession.”

This isn’t just minor quibbling over linguistics. The numbers bear out the complaints. Germany’s gender pay gap is a big one: According to government statistics, women are paid 21 percent less than men (only slightly worse that the U.S. pay gap, for those counting). And women’s pensions average only about half that of men, according to a 2017 study—the biggest discrepancy of the 37 countries analyzed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel shrugged off calls to replace the word ‘fatherland’ in Germany’s national anthem earlier this year. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Activists have tried taking their fight all the way to the top, with mixed results. Germany’s Council for Orthography, which sets rules for spelling and grammar, squashed a highly anticipated debate about the male-female discrepancy, writes USA Today.

One might think Chancellor Angela Merkel would jump into the fray, but in March, she pooh-poohed calls to make the national anthem gender-neutral by changing a reference from “fatherland” to the less-specific “homeland.”

“The chancellor is very happy with our nice national anthem as it is in its traditional form and doesn’t see any need for change,” spokesman Steffen Seibert said during a news conference at the time, as reported by Reuters. (Meanwhile, Austria changed its own gender-skewed anthem — also sung in German — back in 2012.)

Among all the battles women are fighting today, rallying against a word or two might seem minor. But, of course, what people say — and the language they use to say it — isn’t so minor at all. Besides, majoring in the minors is how revolutions get started.

Read the full story at USA Today.


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