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03/02/2022 | Press Release

Psycholinguistics: The gender asterisk makes us think preferentially of women

Psychologists at the Universities of Kassel and Würzburg have investigated which cognitive conceptions of biological or social gender are evoked by different forms of language. One result: even the written gender asterisk (Bürger*innen) does not lead to an equally strong cognitive representation of both genders.

Campus Holländischer Platz of the University of Kassel.Image: University of Kassel.
Campus Holländischer Platz of the University of Kassel.

A variety of psycholinguistic experiments show that the so-called generic masculine (e.g., neighbors) leads many readers to tend to think that the persons mentioned are men. So neighbors are more likely to be men than women in our minds. This is referred to as a male bias. Current discourses about equality in language are also based on these studies.

The results of a study conducted by psychologists from Kassel and Würzburg confirm these findings. What is new about the study is that the gender star variant (e.g. neighbor*innen) was also examined. The result was that the gender star variant is understood in favor of women, i.e. that readers tend to interpret neighbors as female neighbors and not as male neighbors. This so-called female bias is smaller than the male bias described above. However, the fact that a female bias exists shows that the problem of an unequal representation of women and men cannot be escaped even by using this form. An equally strong representation of men and women is achieved when both the female and male forms (e.g., neighbors) are mentioned.

About 600 subjects participated in the study in two runs. They read sentences about groups of people in one of the three variants in each case. In the second sentence in each case, reference was made to a male or female part of the group. Example:

1aThe authors were already at the airport.

1b The authors were already at the airport.

1c The male and female authors were already at the airport.

2a You could observe that some of the men were exhausted.

2b It could be observed that some of the women were exhausted.


The researchers recorded how often and how quickly the subjects could recognize that the second sentence was a possible continuation of the first sentence. For example, if the gender star form was read in the first sentence (sentence 1a), this recognition worked more correctly and quickly in the next sentence when it spoke of women (sentence 2b) than men (sentence 2a). This shows that women are more represented than men when reading the gender star.

"Cognitive psychology studies like this show how gender-related information is actually processed by readers," emphasizes Dr. Anita Körner, lead author of the study. "This and similar research can help in societal discourse to make evidence-based decisions about which forms of language can contribute to gender equality."




Press contact:

Sebastian Mense
University of Kassel
Communications, Press and Public Relations
Tel: +49 561 804-1961
Email: presse[at]uni-kassel[dot]de