From rettore to rettrice: how the University of Trento breaks the tradition of Italian sexist language.

From rettore to rettrice: how the University of Trento breaks the tradition of Italian sexist language.
©ash_crow. April 16th, 2024, via Flickr


Benedetta De Rosa

Women’s Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.

In Italy we are used to the over-extended masculine, i.e. referring to both male and female using only the male declination. This is the rule even if there are more women than men in the group in question. This also applies to individual people. It is no surprise that the Honourable Giorgia Meloni in Italy is called il presidente (male president) and not la presidente (female president) [1]. 

That is technically sexist, is it not? The typical Italian would say no, that it is normal. But what would happen if we turned the tables overnight?

The University of Trento did so. Starting March 28th, 2024, the university will adopt feminine terms for everyone, regardless of their gender [2]. This is the over-extended feminine. The new university regulation declines all offices and gender references to the feminine even if the subject is a man. The University of Trento reverses what happens in the Italian language precisely to expose the discrimination of language, which is nothing but an expression of culture.

The University has pushed men to put themselves in the shoes of women, who throughout history have been erased and have been represented by males. It has become an unintended symbol of a disturbing change. In fact, there has been no shortage of controversy, from those who argue that the battle for inclusive language is futile, to those who cower to keep things the way they are, arguing that the problems of women in Italy are elsewhere [3].

But if language is so insignificant, one question still arises. If a man is allowed to address a woman by male appellation, why is it that a woman should not address a man by female appellation?

To be clear, the feminine gender in professions exists in Italian grammar. However, Italian society accepts the declination of the feminine only for some occupations [4]. These are mainly the ones related to care or education or the domestic sphere. So maestra (female teacher), cuoca (female cook) or cameriera (waitress) exist. It is for positions of power that this declination still sparks controversy [5]. A woman is un ministro (male minister) and not una ministra (a female minister), un direttore (male director) and not una direttrice (female director). As if the male term evokes more professionalism, respect and authority. But does this not create the stereotype that women are not capable of holding those positions?

Being used to always reading only about male engineers, magistrates, or aldermen communicates two things. The first is that women who reach those positions are an exception, compared to their male colleagues. The second is precisely that those positions are typically male, and a woman would not be able to hold them. All to the point that the woman in power has to become more masculine herself to prove worthy of that title. The problem is thus not linguistic but hides all the prejudices that arise as soon as a woman gains a position of power.

The University of Trento’s decision is an intelligent provocation. It exposes the flaws in the system. Surely their female-centered document alone will not solve gender inequality. Certain customs die hard, just like the traces of sexist and male-oriented culture. Yet every word we use is an act of individual and collective identity, as well as an indication of our worldview: words tell others who we are, identify the group to which we belong, and conceptualise the reality around us [6]. Given this, the university has chosen to stop ignoring women's identities and set a precedent from which hopefully others will take example.

Sources and further readings:

[1] Moro E. (2024, April 05). Cos’è il femminile sovraesteso adottato dall’Università di Trento. Elle, Consulted on April 09, 2024.

[2] Media - Pressroom (2024, March 28). UniTrento cara il Regolamento di Ateneo. Tutto al femminile. UniTrento, Consulted on April 09, 2024.

[3] Luce! (2024, April 01). Cos’è il femminile sovraesteso e perché una università italiana lo adotta. Luce!, Consulted on April 09, 2024.

[4] Ambrosio D. (2022, January 11). Perché il genere femminile nelle professioni scatena ancora polemiche (eppure esiste in grammatica). Elle, Consulted on April 09, 2024.

[5] Moro E. (2022, July 28). Perché il Senato ha bocciato la proposta di declinare le cariche al femminile. Elle, Consulted on April 09, 2024.

[6] Riyahi Y. (2020, November 23). L’inclusività della lingua italiana: intervista (al contrario) a Vera Gheno. Exibart, Consulted on April 09, 2024.