Il ministro o La ministra? The Feminine Form in Professional Job Titles

Babbel shares thoughts on many language’s lack of feminine forms for titles in professional roles.
the feminine form of professional job titles

Little by little, women have secured professional roles that were previously unachievable. As important positions in government and society were once reserved for men, many languages never established a feminine form for certain job titles. How do languages adapt to this new reality? In the spirit  of International Women’s Day, we at Babbel – the app for easy language learning – have taken a close look at the feminine form of  professional job titles in several languages.

the feminine form of professional job titles

Italian and French: The Minister is Pregnant

In Italian, the debate over titles and professional roles such as avvocato (lawyer), ministro (minister) or architetto (architect) is nothing new. Almost 30 years ago, Alma Sabatini wrote about this theme in his Raccomandazioni per un uso non sessista della lingua italiana (Recommendation for the Non-Sexist Use of the Italian Language), commissioned by the presidents of the council at the time.

The fact that this document is still quoted, even today, is indicative of the slow progress of this theme. A 2014 guide edited by GiULiA giornaliste recommended using feminine professional role descriptions such as avvocata (lawyer), ministra (minister) and sindaca (mayor) in order to avoid journalistic headline errors like “Il ministro: sono incinta di due gemelli” ([male] Minister: I’m Pregnant with Twins). Somewhat surprisingly, the Accademia della Crusca, the official organization for the preservation of the Italian language, is not only encouraging this change, but considers it essential for the development of the Italian language.

On the contrary, l’Académie française, the official organization for the preservation of the French language, opposes the “feminization” of such terms. The word “minister” will be preceded by the word madame in French (good manners come first, after all), but it will remain a masculine noun, creating a curious hybrid “madame le ministre” (Madame Minister – it sounds stranger in French, trust us). A different usage is found in Quebec, however, where the double gender, masculine and feminine, is sanctioned for professionals by a law passed in 1979.

The Chancellor and the Minister: Feminine Forms in German and Spanish

These two languages couldn’t be any more different from one another and yet they have something in common: they have professional roles for both sexes. In Spanish, either the masculine -o is replaced with an -a, as in ministro/ministra (minister), or an -a is simply added to the end of the word, as in  juez/jueza (judge). Similarly in German, it’s usually enough to add -in to a word to make the job title feminine. The most important woman in German politics, Angela Merkel, is simply: die Bundeskanzlerin. There is also a shift toward gender-neutral language taking place: increasingly Bedienung (service) is used instead of Kellner and Kellnerin (waiter and waitress).

English and Swedish: From the Neutral Form to the Third Sex

Neutrality: it seems to not only be a characteristic of Switzerland, at least from a grammatical perspective. In English, words preceded by the generic article “the” don’t have any gender connotation and are perceived as neutral. Professions follow the same scheme and are generally applicable to both genders. “Minister” is only a title indiscriminately applied to both men and women.

The Swedish language goes one step further. Currently, there exists only two grammatical genders – one neutral and one that combines both male and female (previously this gender was distinguished as either male or female). This desire to combine the two genders is also reflected in professional roles that usually have a generic form, following the English example. For professions that had strong masculine or feminine connotations in the past, neologisms have been created that are similar to the German ones. A curious exception: despite all “neutralization”, there are still professions that only have one gender. Sjuksköterska (nurse), for example, is also used for men.