13. January 2022 | Press releases:

How understandable is the gender asterisk? Experiments at TU Braunschweig indicate different effects for plural and singular forms

More and more German texts use the gender asterisk, which is supposed to represent people of all genders. According to critics, however, this impairs the comprehensibility of the text. The Institute of Educational Psychology at Technische Universität Braunschweig conducted two experiments to test whether the gender asterisk actually impairs comprehensibility. The results of the study were published open access in the current issue of the journal “Frontiers in Psychology”.

How should gender be represented in German texts? This has been debated for several decades. Recently, the gender asterisk in particular has become more widespread, a special form of gender-equitable language that is also intended to typographically represent people outside the gender dichotomy of male-female. It is supposed to help address women and other genders better and make their interests and achievements more visible. However, critics often argue that this makes the language less understandable and less aesthetically pleasing. Is this really the case?

Experiments with game descriptions

Dr. Marcus C. G. Friedrich, Veronika Drößler, Nicole Oberlehberg and Professor Dr. Elke Heise from the Institute of Educational Psychology at TU Braunschweig tested this in two experiments. They examined a description of a board game and a description of the contact sport Kabaddi. The texts consisted of 462 and 471 words respectively and used only masculine forms. For example, in 20 and 51 places respectively, it said “die Spieler” (the players), “der Angreifer” (the attacker) or “er” (he). In order to translate the text into gender-conscious language, these words were systematically replaced by forms with gender asterisks, for example “die Spieler*innen” (the players), “der*die Angreifer*in” (the attacker) or “er*sie” (he*she). The texts with gender asterisks were just as long as the texts with only masculine forms.

In the experiments, 159 and 127 students respectively were randomly presented with one of the two versions of the text. After reading, the participants rated the comprehensibility of the text. The results of the first experiment showed that there were no differences between the version that used only masculine forms and the version that used the gender asterisk.

Impairment due to singular forms?

In the second text presented, however, the gender asterisk clearly impaired comprehensibility. The authors assume that the difference is caused by the number of singular forms. The text with the gender asterisk in the first experiment contained mainly plural forms, for example “die Spieler*innen” (the players) and no form such as “der*die Spieler*in” (the player). The text with gender asterisks in the second experiment, on the other hand, mainly used such cumbersome singular forms, for example “Jede Mannschaft schickt abwechselnd eine*n Angreifer*in – die*den sogenannte*n Raider*in – in die gegnerische Mannschaft” (Each team takes turns sending an attacker – the so-called raider – into the opposing team).

This assumption will be tested in further studies and also with other groups of people, for example with pupils. “Overall, the research on gender-equitable language and text comprehensibility suggests that gender-equitable language does not impair comprehensibility as long as the gender-equitable forms are similar to the usual forms,” says Dr. Marcus Friedrich.