When asking why gender sensitive language is relevant and what is behind that concept we talked to Annika Spill 1 and she replied:

“It’s a human need, which stands behind it [to make aware of all gender identities].”

This perfectly sums up why this topic is so important for us.

In short, our project is a contraceptive method based on tracking the natural hormone cycle. However, this led to the problem that not only women have to be addressed, but also every person who has a hormone pattern based on estradiol, progesterone and luteinizing hormone (LH). , this is a topic that we cannot solve solely with natural science and it has hardly been discussed in the iGEM Community so far. Therefore, we have set ourselves the goal to work out a concept for the future iGEM generations that will ensure an inclusive linguistic design with regard to gender diversity. Furthermore, we would like to increase the attention the topic receives worldwide. But let us start.

Why is gendering so important for our product?

As said above, WavySense is based on the measurement of hormone concentrations which determine fertility. However, this hormone cycle is not only present in cis women and we would like to address every person it may concern. Furthermore, our product is not yet gender-connoted and would be a good option for people in transition and non-binary people as well. WavySens does not interfere with a hormone replacement therapy, which might be part of a gender-transition process. Nor does it cause hormone-based changes of the appearance of one’s body which can lead to problems in the gender expression, as specific forms of appearance are subject to social ascriptions in the binary code of male and female.

Let’s get the definitions straight

Gender describes how behavior, preferences, interests, roles, etc. of individuals are socially and culturally constructed. Gender emphasizes how such characteristics, which in our binary gender system could be classified as “typically” female or male, are not naturally. Rather, they are an expression of culture-specific social norms. [1], [2]

Sex indicates to biological aspects. These include chromosomes, hormonal balance, gonads, as well as internal and external genital reproductive organs. Sex however is not the exact opposite of gender nor the ‘natural’ form of gender, as the social-cultural construction of gender also affects the way we understand the sex. We understand sex as a spectrum rather than the two categories male and female, as they are often understood in the gender binary system. [2]

Cisgender describes people whose gender ascribed at birth matches their gender identity. Cis gender corresponds to the social norm. This means that in our heteronormative society it is automatically assumed that everyone are cis. [3]

Transgender (also Trans*) is used as an umbrella-term for people whose gender identity does not match the gender assigned at birth. [4]

Gender binary- the binary gender system assumes that there are only two genders, male and female. It does not allow other genders or intermediate levels. The gender binary applies to every part of society, e.g. the social roles, gender identities, the sex, etc. The gender binary hides the existence of people who do not feel represented in it. The gender binary is (re)created in everyday life through social practices, institutions, norms, etc. If it is contested, it is also enforced by violence, which leads to dangerous and hurtful situations for people who do not identify themselves within the gender binary.

Intersex describes a person who cannot be clearly assigned to either the normative conception of masculinity or femininity. This can be hormonal, chromosomal or due to the formation of the internal or external sex organs. Intersex makes no statement about a person’s gender identity.

Non-binary applies to persons whose gender is outside the binary-system.

Generic Masculine denotes a German habit or method using grammatically masculine terms as the standard personal form for gender mixed groups. However, this form is still associated with men and is not gender-neutral, therefore it hides other gender identities, which is not solely an issue of language but can for example lead to falsely influence research or similar. Therefore, it should be avoided [6].

Gendering in iGEM - What happened so far

We suggest that there is always room for improvement in understanding unique inclusivity problems and making our communities more inclusive. – iGEM Diversity & Inclusion Committee

The Diversity & Inclusion Committee pursues the idea of inclusion in iGEM. In this context we have contacted them to clarify general questions. The committee was inspired by the Paris Bettencourt team and was formed in 2013. This team already wanted to draw attention to gender diversity in iGEM in 2013. They were particularly interested in the gender distribution of iGEM and in Synthetic Biology in general. The Committee would like to expand this point by increasing the quota of women in iGEM. Furthermore, in 2019 a LTBTQ+ Meetup was held and workshops on this topic were offered. The committee encourages the use of gender-inclusive phrases, asking people what gender identity they identify with instead of making assumptions and offering surveys with different response options, allowing gender selection for each person. We would like to spin this idea even further and provide assistance for future iGEM generations on how to deal with the topic of gender and how to adapt their language to be gender inclusive.

Relevance of the topic in 2020

It is important to highlight in advance that gender was not "invented" in 2020 or in the years just before. Gender roles were established in the Age of reason (or the Enlightenment) and the two sexes anchored here were assigned social tasks: The female as fragile, who does the care work and the male as the hard-working, money-making role. This social-culturally construction of the gender male and female still has a subliminal effect in current contexts. However, this distribution does not match existing gender identities. Furthermore, it is biologically incorrect, since biologically speaking there are not only two sexes, but a sex spectrum, as already described in the definitions. LGBTQIA and feminist movements have fought to establish a more diverse understanding of gender ever since. Due to their constant efforts, gender sensitive language is becoming more and more established in day to day life and mainstream academia. Another approach as to why gender diversity and by that gender sensitive language seems to be so relevant right now, is due to the fact that gender diversity has also been adapted for economic strategies by implementing new target groups through integration of the concepts of gender diversity . Therefore, gender sensitive language is crucial to speak to such costumers.

For all these reasons, it can be seen that gender diversity has actually had a relevance for much longer, but is still not established in the whole of society. We would now like to contribute to strengthen the relevance of this topic, to raise awareness worldwide and to turn inclusive language into normality in academia and especially the STEM field.

Gender in everyday life - A summary

In society, gender identity, is extremely important, as highlighted in the definition above, the understanding of gender is an all-encompassing part of our society and thereby fundamental to our everyday life as well as research and scientifical practices in academia. Starting at birth, where the genitals are assigned to a specific sex and it is decided whether the baby is a girl or a boy. This assignment of a gender role then accompanies the child for the next few years or even for the rest of its life.

For many people the gender-sensitive language feels unfamiliar, because it has not yet arrived in the mainstream and is not used by everyone. It is also taught that spoken language is meant for everyone. Nevertheless gender-sensitive language wants to bring attention to the gender identities that are usually hidden, women for example but also gender identities that are not conform with the gender binary. Hence the unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling people might experience when using gender-sensitive language for the first time is actually something to encourage as it draws attention to an uncomfortable issue: The usage of the Generic Masculine in German makes other gender identities invisible.

Starting from the German language, gendering can be implemented in two ways: Making visible or neutralizing. Making visible is about recognizing and appreciating the genders of the person addressed directly while reading. In German, for example, gender-* is used to include women, men and all other possible genders. In neutralization, gender-neutral formulations are used to indirectly include all genders. [7]

In English this is different: Nouns have no grammatical gender, so neutralization is not necessary. Nevertheless, the English language also reflects historically grown patriarchal structures and excludes those that do not identify with the binary system. The use of plural personal pronouns have thus become established for people who do not identify with the binary system. [7], [8]

Gender and language

In short, it can be said: language is power and power is violence. Language shapes our world, it determines who we elect into political positions, whether we hurt or discriminate people, but also whether we include all people in our statements. How we speak makes an influence. Influence on how our society develops, whether we promote equal rights for all, create hierarchies or break them. All this and much more shows that a gender-sensitive language would help our society to promote equality and not to exclude anybody only by a standard formulation and the fear of being criticized.

Relevance of gender in the natural sciences

Science, especially biology, was used to establish the binary system throughout history. Additionally in medicine, drugs are tested on men, as standard human beings. These two examples show that the natural sciences should still make progress in the gender issue. Because it is proven that the gender spectrum exists and thus disproves the binary system. Drugs have a different effect on women than on men due to genes, hormones, phase of life, use of contraceptives etc. and thus sometimes lead to drastic side effects [9]. But even these aspects can differ in the binary categories, so a strict division into female/male is generally not really useful, since humans function spectrally and not binary. For example, the hormone concentration is not influenced by sex but by the individual characteristics of each body. It is therefore obvious that natural science is also significantly influenced by the gender spectrum. For this reason it is important to establish an awareness here.

How should we deal with our findings?

Based on all the knowledge we have gained through conversations and our research, we would like to set up guidelines for the future iGEM generations and contribute to the promotion of the gender idea worldwide. However, there is no "norm" for gender, as in other areas of language. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the language used is appropriate to the situation, correct in content and understandable. [6] In short it can be said that gender-appropriate language is characterized by clarity, representation, appreciation and anti-discrimination. [7]

  • 1. Avoid the generic masculine, if your language requires a gramatical gender.
  • 2. Do not use paraphrases, but state exactly who is meant.
    • Example: Menstruating person
  • 3. Include everyone, including those who do not subscribe to the binary gender understanding, by means of the gender-* in German and gender-neutral singular pronouns in English.
    • Example: they, them, their, theirs
  • 4. Use gender-neutral terms.
    • Example: business person instead of businessman
  • 5. Arrange persons alphabetically to avoid hierarchies.
  • 6. Name titles correctly and completely.
    • Example: Prof. Dr.


It can be seen that gender issues can be incorporated into everyday life, but also into science, by simple means. It is important not to discriminate with our language, but on the contrary to include every person. We would like to thank everyone who helped us to work out the topic for iGEM, but also all those who received an impulse from us to integrate the topic more into their lives and into their research. We would be happy if future teams continue our guidelines and add new points to them, so that we all stay in dialogue and carry the topic more out into the world.


  • [1] A. Steinhauer and G. Diewald, Richtig gendern. Wie Sie angemessen und verständlich schreiben. Berlin: Bibliographisches Institut GmbH, 2017.
  • [2] A. Gäckle, “ÜberzeuGENDERe Sprache Leitfaden für eine geschlechtersensible und inklusive Sprache,” Köln, 2020.
  • [3] National Council of Teachers of English, “Statement on Gender and Language,” 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 24-Oct-2020].
  • [4] S. Oertelt-Prigione and V. Regitz-Zagrosek, Sex and gender aspects in clinical medicine. 2013.

  • 1 Annika Spill is studying gender studies in her master's degree at Bielefeld University. She is part of Gender Sociology Team at Universität Bielefeld and also works on institutional at the interface between medicine and gender studies.