The matter was settled in less than five minutes. “It’s over for today,” said the chairman of the court, Christoph Hellerbrand, in the Ingolstadt district court in proceedings against a VW employee against Audi. Verdict: The lawsuit is dismissed, which is a clear success for the producer. But it may as well be the case that the dispute over gender differences has not yet been finally settled.
Alexander B. went to court over Audi’s gender guidelines that the company introduced in March 2021. He is concerned by the fact that Audi uses gender forms such as underline (“employees”) to communicate with him. This leads to new discrimination and infringes his personal rights. He demanded that Audi no longer send him e-mails, e-mail attachments and presentations with so-called gender differences – and pay 100,000 euros in the event of violations. At the June conciliation hearing, the carmaker rejected the comparison according to which Audi was only supposed to keep Alexander B. away from such communication. So now the judge had to decide.
When the sentence was announced, this time Alexander B. sat alone before Judge Christoph Hellerbrand. His two lawyers, who stood up vehemently in defense of their client at the last meeting, did not come to Ingolstadt this time. Audi did not send any of its lawyers either, there were only two observers from the ranks of the car manufacturer in the audience.
Nevertheless, the rows of visitors in the session room no. 16 of the District Court were again well packed – mainly with representatives of various media. The “gender issue,” he hears unanimously, is very interesting to people. The linguistics professor from the Eichstätt-Ingolstadt University also came for the verdict. She says she just got a bachelor’s thesis on the Audi gender guide.
So much attention has been paid to this trial that so far the gender issue in court has largely taken the opposite direction – that is, people have sued companies because they feel discriminated against because of language that is not gender neutral. It was only in June that the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt sentenced Deutsche Bahn to 1000 euros in damages as the purchase of a ticket was only possible by choosing between a “man” and “woman” in greetings. The non-binary person sued this decision and was right.
In 2018, a dispute over the correct address even reached the Federal Constitutional Court. At that time, however, Sparkasse could still write “client” in its forms and did not have to offer the claimant any clearly feminine wording.
Alexander B. can imagine taking further legal steps
When Judge Hellerbrand announced the verdict, Alexander B. – dark suit, white shirt – did not make a face. He is eager to take notes, and only asks when he gets to know the detailed reasons for the verdict at the end. From the brief statements of the judge on Friday, it can at least be concluded that the court took into account in favor of Audi that Alexander B. does not work directly for the subsidiary, but for VW. Hellerbrand explained that the plaintiff was not required to “actively use” the language of the sexes as the guidelines were aimed exclusively at Audi employees. But the court found no violation of Alexander B.’s personal rights, even with passive use, for example in e-mails, documents or presentations. Hellerbrand also denied breach of the Equal Treatment Act.
“Of course you’re not enthusiastic,” said Alexander B. after the verdict, after all, the matter is close to him. Perhaps, he suspects, it has not been sufficiently explained how much the language of gender influences him. But now he wants to wait for the written statement of reasons and then, together with his lawyers, decide what to do next. “I can’t leave it like that,” he said. And: “I clearly do not rule out that there are further steps.” If he does appeal, the Munich Higher Regional Court will have to reopen the case.
“We are pleased with this verdict,” Audi commented on the outcome of the procedure in a written statement. We feel empowered in the decision to “introduce gender sensitive language in internal and external written communication”.
Audi is not the only company that speaks this language. In 2021, every third company said in a survey by the Ifo Institute that it was changing. However, this usually concerned only external communication, and only one in four companies made changes on their own. In the survey business week In June, one in four of the 40 largest DAX companies replied that they had mandatory gender-neutral language laws.