Gender-inclusive politicians

Over the last couple of decades, German-speakers have witnessed the emergence of a new social norm: that of gender-inclusive language. In this post, I explore the evolution of gender-inclusive language using all Austrian parliamentary speeches since the mid-nineties.

German is a strongly gender-marked language. Almost every word denoting a person (e.g., citizen, doctor, teacher) has both a grammatically male and female version. For example, a female student is a Studentin (plural: Studentinnen), while a male student is a Student (plural: Studenten). Traditionally, male person-specific words are considered generic. This means that women can be subsumed into the grammatically male Studenten. For decades, feminists have argued that this grammatical norm renders women invisible. To make women visible in speech, they have suggested gender-inclusive language; when a mixed-gender group of people is referred to, one should explicitly mention both genders. For example, a group of male and female students then are Studentinnen und Studenten, whereas a group of male students are only Studenten.

Gender-inclusive language has been adopted widely in public discourse and formal language, and especially amongst politicians. To study the evolution of gender-inclusive language, I develop a measure for an individuals’ gender inclusivity. It is slightly more complicated but in essence I count all male and female person-specific words in an individual’s speeches, and I then calculate the share of female words. Thus, a score of 0.5 implies equal balancing of male and female person-specific words. I use this measure of gender-inclusivity to learn more about the degree to which Austrian politicians speak gender-inclusively. (In a future post, I will do the same for German politicians, too.)

The below plot is based on more than a hundred thousand speeches in the Austrian parliament since the mid-nineties. It shows the yearly average of the gender inclusivity score for each of the main parties. Some interesting patterns emerge: first, gender-inclusive language has increased overall. Second, this increase is driven by all parties. Third, conservative politicians (ÖVP) by now speak as inclusively as do left-wing politicians (SPÖ, Grüne). Fourth, the liberals (NEOS) had a very inclusive start when they first entered parliament and have then declined from there. Fifth, far-right politicians (FPÖ, BZÖ) are lagging behind by quite a margin: the average FPÖ politician in 2018 spoke less gender-inclusively than the average Green politician 1996.

Gender-inclusive language among Austrian parliamentarians
(Red: SPÖ, black: ÖVP, green: Greens, blue: FPÖ, orange: BZÖ, pink: NEOS)

There are several other aspects to be explored using this approach. For example, do women speak more inclusively? By how much? Is the aggregate change driven by individuals’ changing their behaviour, or is this a compositional effect, i.e., did more inclusive politicians replace less inclusive ones? And importantly: Does it matter whether people speak gender-inclusively? Here we start getting into normative territory. In future posts, I will attempt to answer at least some of these questions.