Hi there. Today I’d like to talk about gender. More accurately, the question of gender in online forms, or as I like to call it, “the forms of gender”. I don’t think there’s another type of information sparking as much discussion as this one.
Before getting into the topic, allow me to clarify one very first thing: gender is not sex, and sex is not gender. We’ll come back to the subtle yet major distinction between the two terms later on.
I’d like to share what I’ve observed, learnt and experienced over the last few years regarding gender in forms, and the possible solutions to make the problem a little less ugly for everyone.
What’s the problem?
Lack of empathy and consideration for a large category of people—that’s the problem. I’ll smooth the rough edges and admit that, most of the time, nobody means any harm and it’s just a poor design decision. Allow me to explain.
When designing forms we usually shape them in a way that we ourselves would feel comfortable filling them in. The problem is that people are different, and what’s fine for us might not be for someone else. But I’m beating about the bush, so I’ll drop the stick. Gender is not binary. Gender has never been binary. Gender is not assigned either, though some may not like it, and can be chosen and changed willingly.
Any form asking to pick between “the two genders” is not only doing it utterly wrong, but also being offensive to a large part of the population. Sometimes it’s just because nobody knew any better. Sometimes it’s an active decision (and that’s sad). So what can we do about it?
Try not to ask
This might sound like weird advice, but it’s the best I can give. If you can avoid asking about sex or gender, just don’t ask. This is even the first recommendation from gov.uk.
Only collect this information when absolutely necessary, such as for legal reasons. Because online forms are derived from administrative paper forms where sex could actually matter, I feel we often ask about gender out of habit when in fact we don’t need to know.
Again—and I cannot stress this enough—gender is not a binary thing. There are so many genders: agender, bigender, non-binary, transgender and genderfluid are just 5 of the rich variations that exist. The nonbinary.org Wiki has such a huge list of non-binary gender identities, and I’m sure you won’t have known about half of them! I certainly didn’t.
I can see how it would be impractical to suggest all these options in a form, although Facebook actually autocompletes over 70 gender options in their gender setting, so it’s definitely something that can be done. If you don’t want to take this route, at least offer a way to opt for something other than the traditional binary choices and declare an unspecified gender.
We’ve spent a long time considering a good English term for this. We thought about “other” or “else” but found them potentially exclusive, especially without the ability to specify further. We also considered “non-binary” but that still doesn’t encompass all possibilities, or even “I’d rather not say” because heck, that’s also totally fine.
In any case, offer the possibility to define a specific gender identity.
Pick your words wisely
Speaking of gender identity, let’s pause for a moment on terminology. Gender Spectrum—a site dedicated to awareness around gender issues—has a brilliant definition of gender:
“Gender...is the complex interrelationship between an individual’s sex (gender biology), one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither (gender identity) as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors (gender expression) related to that perception, including their gender role.”
I believe it might be more appropriate to ask about gender identity or gender expression rather than gender, which is usually a synonym for biological gender. The same goes for sex, which is literally focused on anatomical gender. Again, it might be fine to ask about it for legal reasons, but I’d argue that it’s actually a borderline case.
If you have to ask in a binary way for whatever reason, try to pick sensible language. Choose “man/woman” over “male/female”—the former is about identity, while the latter is about anatomical sex. It’s safe to assume people would rather reveal their identity than their anatomy.
Use gender neutral pronouns
Let’s put the forms to one side and talk about communication. Whether you know which gender identity the user defines themselves as or not, use gender neutral pronouns (if available in your language).
In English, the singular “they” is a gender neutral pronoun. This should be the default. Not he, not she, but they. It is meant for this purpose: when the best pronoun for a person is not known. Use it—nobody will ever feel offended.
Unfortunately, not all languages have a gender-neutral pronoun. French, for instance. There are ways to convey gender neutrality through the use of both masculine and feminine pronouns at the same time, but that’s more of a hack than anything else.
Ideally, you would ask for the preferred pronoun, as it’s simple information to store. In English, it’s either they/them, she/her or he/him. From there, you can be sure to always use the best pronoun for the user when communicating with them, or about them to others.
Summing things up
Alright, that’s a lot of information. Here are the main points:
- Gender is not binary. Even sex is not.
- Gender is not assigned. Sex is.
- Gender is chosen. Sex is not.
Be open-minded about how people define themselves. You don’t have to understand, you just have to accept it.
Either ask as little as possible about sex and gender, or ask the right questions and register the gender identity and preferred pronoun. In any case, don’t present an exclusive binary choice, and certainly not as “male” or “female”. Always offer another option, as wide as possible (like a text field).
If we can all do that, then it’s a good start for gender in online forms.
Header image by Vivien Schnelle.