Included in the thought? New studies on the generic masculine

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One man among 15 women: In this case, the use of the generic masculine would be
One man among 15 women: In this case, the use of the generic masculine would be grammatically correct. (Image: Daniel Berkmann)
The generic masculine generally emphasizes the masculine side. The fact that all genders are of course meant does not change this. This is shown by a new study by Würzburg psychologists.

It is a crux with the generic masculine in German: if a group is made up of 99 female professors and only one male professor, it would be grammatically correct to speak of "the professors" in this case. After all, the masculine plural always includes women. One should simply not confuse the grammatical gender with the natural gender - at least that is the view of many gender opponents. They are bothered by the discussion about linguistic alternatives that can clearly address all people.

Many studies have already shown that the generic masculine is associated with men rather than women. But what happens when there is no doubt that all genders are included? For example, it is clear that the sentence "All citizens are entitled to vote" does not refer exclusively to men, but should also include female citizens. Does the generic masculine have a correspondingly inclusive effect in such cases, or is a "male-biased" image still triggered?

Additional information prevents the "male bias"

Scientists at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) have examined this question from the perspective of psychology. The result: If the generic masculine is supplemented with information that clarifies the gender-mixed composition of a group, the "masculine bias" disappears. However, special grammatical markers that continuously remind us of the generic intention in a text do not change this.

Patrick Rothermund, research assistant at the Department of Psychology II, and Fritz Strack, professor emeritus at the department, were responsible for this study. They have published the results in the current issue of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

Two experiments with small differences

In their study, the two social psychologists conducted two experiments, each with 200 participants - all native German speakers. In both experiments, the participants were presented with pairs of sentences. The first sentence described a group such as "newsreaders", while the second sentence described a gender-specific subset of this group, i.e. "the men" or "the women". The test subjects’ task was to press a key to judge whether the second sentence was a meaningful continuation of the first - and to do so as quickly as possible.

In the two experiments, the fact that the generic masculine refers to mixed-gender groups was communicated in different ways. In the first experiment, contextual references were made to both genders, for example through stereotypical clothing. For example, one sentence read: "The newsreaders wore smart suits and dresses". In the control condition, the gender reference was deleted: ’The newsreaders wore smart clothes’.

In the second experiment, the test subjects were made aware of the generic intention even more directly. They were instructed at the beginning that a circumflex sign (^) indicates that all genders are meant. The subjects then read sentences such as: "The newsreaders^ wore smart clothes". In both experiments, it was measured whether subsequent sentences such as "In preparation, all women read through the news" or "In preparation, all men read through the news" were accepted as a meaningful continuation, and how long it took the test subjects to make this decision.

Mere knowledge is not enough

The results of these two experiments clearly show that the majority of study participants associated the generic masculine with men rather than women. This imbalance disappears with appropriate contextual cues - as in the example sentence above, when talking about "suits and dresses". However, emphasizing the generic intention with the circumflex was not enough to correct the "male-biased" image.

"Simply knowing about the generic meaning is therefore not enough to compensate for asymmetrical gender representations," the two authors conclude. In their opinion, a deeper understanding of the underlying psychological processes is crucial in order to advance the ongoing scientific and social debate.


Rothermund, P., & Strack, F. (2024). Reminding may not be enough: Overcoming the male dominance of the generic masculine. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 0(0).­X241237739