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Why ask about gender

by Claire Gowler
Posted on 19 October 2015
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Last November I wrote a blogpost called How to ask about gender; a brief overview of how to handle gender variance in web forms. There has been a very good response to the post and it has been used by several people as a reference. This post is a follow-up to some of the questions I received so you may wish to read it first.

After writing the post, I used it to write a lightning talk. In the last year, I have given the lightning talk at five conferences and a full length version of the talk at one conference and two usergroups. Talking to other developers and designers about gender variance has not only helped spread understanding, but has also helped me get an idea of what issues developers have implementing these ideas.

Why are people asking about gender in the first place?

As part of my talk, I speak about why organisations are asking about gender and why these reasons are not always justified.

Advertising

Advertising is the big one. This is why Facebook still make you register with a binary gender despite allowing you to have any gender you like on your profile. When you create a Facebook page you can choose to target users based on gender.

Obviously everyone is covered by the 'All' option, but what if I want to target non-binary users, or everyone except cisgender men? Gendered advertising is easy but not very effective. Twitter doesn't ask users about their gender but infers it from their interests and followers; this means that women interested in technology will receive 'male' adverts.

Demographics

The other reason a lot of people talk to me is about demographics; in order to track diversity lots of organisations may want to ask about gender, sexuality and race. Technology is heavily skewed towards white straight cisgender men and many companies want to fix this, but can't if they don't know the demographics of their users. For example, 24 Pull Requests show a random selection of their 9,000 participants on their website. They do not ask about gender and the selection is random, and so the odds of it being male-dominated is fairly high. This may lead to possible female participants being put off joining in. In this case, it is acceptable to ask about gender as long as

  1. it is optional
  2. it is inclusive
  3. the user understands why this information is important and how it will be used.

Other reasons

Secondary reasons include forms of address (pronouns, titles etc) and physical characteristics. For both these reasons, you should ask the specific question rather than using gender to infer the answer. Many (but not all) non-binary people use a pronoun other than he/she. The singular 'they' is very common but there are specific gender neutral pronouns. (For examples see: https://minus18.org.au/pronouns-app/) Similarly not all titles are gender specific. It is also not a legal requirement for someone to use a title at all. Titles should always be optional and/or free text.

If you are asking about a characteristic then that should be your question. Many transgender men keep their womb and ovaries and therefore can become pregnant, therefore you cannot assume a forum for mothers or an app to track foetal development only has female users.

Conclusions

Best practice is not to ask about gender at all unless there is a justified case. Current guidelines from the Government Digital Service advise companies to be very clear in their reasoning as you may fall foul of UK equality law. If you must ask about gender, you should ensure that all users are catered for and that non-binary or transgender users are not left out by your forms.

This is a complicated subject and each business has their own reasons for collecting user data. If you have any questions or need any advice, please email me or check out some of the resources in the previous post.

Posted on 19 October 2015 - By Claire Gowler
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