Astronauts, researchers, citizens, customers, police officers, judges… all of these expressions include women and various people! This is how advocates of the generic masculine argue, i.e. the use of the masculine form even in cases in which not only men are meant. However, more and more studies are showing that it makes a difference to the mind’s eye whether, for example, the female form is explicitly mentioned.

The generic masculine was used in Germany for decades. But its foundation is shaky. More and more people and organizations are using alternatives to make women and non-binary people – people who identify as neither man nor woman – more visible. This can include consistently naming the female form (for example: judges). There are also gender-neutral expressions such as human, person and member. In some cases, nouns such as teachers and students are also used.

Spellings with a gender star (for example students), Binnen-I (students) and so-called gender gap (students and students) are particularly passionately discussed. Bavaria has just banned such constructs in its authorities, schools and universities.

What is meant is not necessarily thought through

Studies show that so-called gender-appropriate language fundamentally makes a difference. The social psychologists Fritz Strack and Patrick Rothermund from the University of Würzburg just published a study in the “Journal of Language and Social Psychology” according to which the generic masculine is more likely to be associated with men – even if it is specifically stated that women are also included.

The fact that the generic masculine distorts the idea towards men could fundamentally be due to the communicative intention being misunderstood – i.e. that it is believed that only men are meant, the scientists write. Another explanation would be that male associations are automatically aroused with the generic masculine.

The study by Strack and Rothermund now provides clear evidence that there is actually a kind of automatic association with the generic masculine. As a result, it is not enough to emphasize and remind people that the generic masculine does not only mean men.

Experiments on language understanding

In their experiments, the researchers had almost 200 participants evaluate certain sentence combinations. In a first sentence, the generic masculine was used for a group of people, such as waiters, news anchors, authors, walkers, vocational students, neighbors and spectators. A second sentence mentioned either an all-male or all-female subgroup of the group from sentence one. The participants should then indicate as quickly as possible whether sentence two is a reasonable continuation of sentence one.

The results show that participants more often classified the second sentences as meaningful continuations of the first sentences when a male subgroup was mentioned. In addition, they were quicker in their judgment. According to the researchers, this means that the participants were more likely to associate the generic masculine with men.

This was also the case when the test subjects were explicitly made aware at the beginning of the experiment that the generic masculine can mean both men and women, and a special symbol was also installed in the sentences shown as a reminder.

In this way, other images can be created in your head

While simply remembering wasn’t enough, the researchers were able to show in another experiment how it can become clearer that women are included. In the first sentence, participants received additional information that was intended to create different images in their heads – for example, by mentioning stereotypically feminine clothing, for example: “The waiters wore light-colored shirts and blouses.” Or through even clearer indications that the groups do not only consist of men, such as: “The vocational students were divided into mixed-gender classes.”

The Würzburg team found that this additional information meant that test subjects no longer associated men as often – despite the generic masculine.

Grammar lessons are not enough

Previous studies also show that it is difficult to understand the generic masculine as it is meant, namely inclusive of women and diverse people. “People may have learned the rule in school and understand it, but cannot easily apply it,” researchers wrote in a 2009 review article in the European Journal of Psychology of Education.

Even in relation to groups of people who are more stereotypically associated with women, the generic masculine often evokes male associations, as other studies suggest. In a study entitled “When everyone is men,” the words beautician and obstetrician were also more likely to be associated with men.