Genders and Drop-down Menus

Dear Silicon Valley,

First of all, I don’t know if I’ve told you this lately, but I love you.  We do great things here, and this life is pretty damned fun.  You’ve taken very good care of me, introduced me to brilliant people, given me the tools to stay connected with a world of friends, and even started paying my rent.  I’m forever grateful that we found each other.

And I have a favor to ask.

I’m noticing that the stuff we make here — these websites and tools and communities — can influence the rest of the world pretty significantly.  It used to be that only the geeks were using the Internet, but now it’s becoming “pretty much everybody.”  And here’s the powerful thing: when a website is considered “good,” whatever that website displays as content, images, default settings, or options is considered “normal” by its users. You have the power to influence “normal.” I could give you examples, but I know you already know what I’m talking about.

The favor I want to ask is this: please think about how you’re handling race and gender on your websites.  Just look at it.  You don’t have to change anything.  Just make a mental note in your head about what your saying to your users about the importance of race and gender, and the categories that exist for them.

I’ll give you a hint: If you’re still asking about race in a required drop-down menu, you’re way behind.  Because doing it that way says to a user:

  • You have a race.
  • It’s really important to me.
  • It’s one (and only one) of these listed here.

Seriously, I really don’t think you’re doing this, because it would be horribly weird.  My friend with the half-Jamaican-half-Chinese father and Irish immigrant mother would either laugh hysterically at you or be extraordinarily offended.  “You want me to tell you what? WHY??”

The way we build a profile page matters.  You get that it matters.

So… this next part’s gonna sound a little weird, but hear me out for a minute.  I think gender is taking the same path as race.  It’s still visually defining, but people are starting to acknowledge that there are grey areas. And those grey areas are growing.

There’s a longstanding argument that “male” and “female” are a biologically-defined and relevant way to split our population in half. But if you’ve ever met a feminine man or a masculine woman, you know that these categories are way too rough to mean anything more than a stereotype sometimes.

It goes deeper than that.  For example, within lesbian communities, “butch” and “femme” have been considered separate genders for awhile now.  Yes, they’re both female (well, sometimes), but they have different roles both in the community and in relationships (except when they don’t, which is true for any gender).  There’s also a growing presence of people who are living today as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Sometimes you notice them and sometimes you don’t.  (Hint: You won’t know how many you aren’t noticing — that’s the point.)  There are people born intersex — with the biological features of more than one gender (and there are more of these than you might expect).  And you may have noticed this in cities and among young people — there’s also a growing presence of folks whose genders you just can’t identify.  Some of them, if you ask them respectfully, will tell you they feel like both genders.  Or neither gender.  Or a gender that needs a new name.  They might answer to both “he” and “she,” or they might prefer something different.  They’re in-between, and that’s where they belong.

Just for a minute, try to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who has spent a lifetime feeling just as uncomfortable in the men’s locker room as in the women’s locker room — for whatever reason.  Imagine having to dress in clothing that just feels wrong to you, everyday, because you know it means you’ll be treated better than you would if you wore what you like.  Imagine walking through the world knowing that everyone’s first assumptions about how you see yourself, who you love, and what feels right for you are completely wrong.

Now imagine signing up for a cool website, and then being required to select an option from a drop-down menu that doesn’t include anything that represents you.  If you don’t decide to close the browser window right then and there, you’ll probably pick the gender of the restroom you still use in public when you have no other choice (even though people might stop you to tell you you’re in the wrong one no matter what), and you’ll feel defeated. You’ll want to argue that whatever they think they’re learning from that drop-down menu, it’s not really true. You’ll want to tell them that they’re adding to your humiliation by making you do this. You’ll want to tell them that they’re missing a huge part of you by boiling this rich and beautiful characteristic down into a two-option drop-down menu.

Okay, you can come back now.  That’s all I needed from you — just to think about it. The truth is, there are no perfect solutions to this problem right now.  Gender is still relevant (except when it’s not) and drop-downs are still the cleanest way to gather data (except when they’re not).  To quote Facebook (a site that’s only sort of doing it wrong), “It’s complicated.”

So just keep an eye out.  Be aware of what you’re calling normal.  Make a mental note of who it might be excluding.  Make conscious choices about how you handle things.  And please remind the web developer in the next cubicle to do the same.

Thanks and love,
Sarah Dopp

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44 Responses to “Genders and Drop-down Menus”

  1. Cray Says:

    This is the best. Thank you.

  2. Maureen Says:

    Very interesting point Sarah. In my last year working, legislation came up prohibiting same sex marriage to which my boss was adamantly opposed.(bless her Southern Soul). We did discuss how one ‘would’ define a man or a woman should the legis come close to being a real possibility. That was never answered to my satisfaction and I wondered if gender/sex could be a self determination as race now is. If so what happens to marriage definitions/bans?

  3. Maureen Says:

    … guy in next cubicle?? How bout person. ;-)

  4. Helen G Says:

    Hello

    I found this post via a Tweet of Kate Bornstein’s and, as a trans woman who self-identifies as just that, I wanted to say thank you for saying this.

    Thank you
    Helen

  5. tiffany Says:

    but but how can marketers deliver TARGETED advertising to you if they don’t force you into a neat little box.

  6. j.Cusano Says:

    Some time ago I created a database model for a non-existent dating web site as a mental exercise (information architecture is a thorough workout) which, of course, led to specifications for race, gender, and sexual preference.

    Initially, in the spirit of reducing redundant data, I thought a preset list of each was ideal; however, after running through many modern scenarios, I found myself with some very long lists for each category and many instances where more than one value per category may be needed.

    The specifications quickly turned into race(s), gender(s), and sexual preference(s); all categories became nullable; and lists were traded in for fill-ins, creating problems with the search mechanics. Anyone who doesn’t think dating is complicated should try to make an all-encompassing database like this.

    Anyway: I think that was my first lesson in precisely what you’re talking about. I haven’t thought about those things the same since.

  7. sarah Says:

    Maureen — LOL, you got me. I edited it to “web developer in the next cubicle.”

  8. insomnius Says:

    Amen to that. These days I usually give up on signing up for a site or service if it makes me choose one or the other, because it’s either that or use it and feel like a damned liar.

  9. Debbie Says:

    Good column!

    Personally, I think “guy” is not very gendered and should become even less so. How about “you guys!” which is frequently used for mixed (or very mixed) groups.

  10. Emma McCreary Says:

    OK, but…if you could take all the political and social ramifications away, and you were given a metric by which you could, for a huge percentage of the population, determine a great deal of information that is probably true for most of the people by using a simple category, wouldn’t you use it?

    I agree that gender binaries leave certain people completely out, but do you think it’s the categories that are the problem or how people use them? The same drop-downs often ask for how much money you make, your religion, and other stuff – and often the categories are not applicable to everyone and people get grouped together into categories like “spiritual but not religious”.

    Does that category boil down a rich truth into a one line vague category? Sure. Do I care? Not really. Because nobody is beaten up for their religion (well, not here anyway) or forced to go into the Protestant or Christian bathrooms, so nobody cares about how that drop-down misses large amounts of individuality. Because it’s expected – of course it will. It’s a drop-down category.

    On the other hand, people view the category of gender itself as actually meaning a whole lot and not including a lot of variation, so when they do come across variation they often hate and fear it. That’s the problem. Not the fact that categories overgeneralize, because all categories do that. It’s the way people think of the categories and the way they think of people that don’t fit into them.

    Lots of categories don’t fit everyone. But that’s not the problem. Oppression and ignorance is the problem, and that’s a problem even when the category fits fine.

    So, I’m all for more education and awareness. And if you want to add an “Other” category to gender drop-downs, that’s fine with me. But I think getting all upset about drop-down menus misses a more fundamental point, and, to me, trivializes a much deeper issue by making it into political correctness (let’s not offend anyone!). An attitude of political correctness puts everyone on edge and blocks real connection, IMHO.

  11. Amber Rhea Says:

    This post is wonderful. Just beautifully said.

  12. Melissa Gira Grant Says:

    “OK, but…if you could take all the political and social ramifications away…”

    That’s an enormous, impossible “if.” Gender & race (and religion) don’t exist outside a social vacuum. In my understanding, they simply would not exist without the social.

    What our body parts, facial hair, hair length, curves, and knuckle-size mean, what the color of our skin and shape of our noses and lips and texture of our hair — it all seems biological, but what those difference mean, and who determines what those meanings mean for our lives, are entirely social.

    Designing a web app with gender & racial inclusiveness in mind is important because the choices involved have the power to define what is normal in a given social context. This isn’t about “not offending” anyone; it’s about opening up and asking people, What do they really want to say about themselves in the world when given more options than a few check boxes? To someone who feels they never fit in, every opportunity to take up space without compromise matters deeply. And that doesn’t have to take anything away from anyone — except maybe those who find comfort mostly in boundaries that they get to dictate without collaboration.

  13. Emma Says:

    @Melissa You took my sentence out of context and I think you missed the point. It was a hypothetical question designed to get to the root of the actual problem – which is not, in my opinion, checkboxes.

    You can’t solve a problem unless you really know what it is. That’s what I’m getting at.

    Obviously gender is social. Everything is. That’s not the point. The point is nobody cares that people lump people into broad religious categories – so the very fact of the lumping is *not* the issue. The issue is the meaning people place on the categories, not the categories themselves.

    I think political correctness increases intolerance because it leads to people feeling bad and guilty and wrong for not already knowing something. It leads people to follow a rule to avoid offending someone, instead of understanding the point of it. It is fear-based, which means compliance leads to resentment. And that is not a place that inspires compassion and connection, which is the only real solution for the problems of exclusion and oppression.

    Anything you gain from non-genuine compliance inspires a backlash or undermining of your true efforts. It closes people off.

    The only way to get someone to want to change is to connect with them, which means seeing their point of view first. It means understanding why we have categories like gender, why they mean so much to so many people – and not dismissing it as “oh, they are just not comfortable unless they get to decide everything”.

  14. Melissa Gira Grant Says:

    I apologize, Emma. What I thought you were saying was, Let’s step out of the social & political context of this issue for a second. I’m glad you dug into more of what you were saying.

    I myself found it hard to understand what you were saying when you ascribed what Sarah articulated to “political correctness,” as if that’s 1) a phrase that has a fixed meaning, and 2) that’s a phrase that itself is used sometimes to shush up hard conversations.

    I also still want to know why offering people more, rather than fewer, ways to describe their identity, is a bad thing?

  15. Lisa Williams Says:

    I loved this post so much I just read it to Evan out loud. Kudos!

  16. Emma Says:

    @Melissa

    My dictionary defines political correctness as:
    “Avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

    I never said adding more options to dropboxes was a “bad thing”. Knock yourself out.

    That you decided that’s what I was saying, when I didn’t say that at all, underscores my point that the whole culture of identity politics revolves around agreement – if you don’t agree, all of a sudden you are “avoiding hard conversations” and must be “unaware of your privelege”, yadda yadda yadda. “If you don’t agree, you must be sexist, racist, patriarchical.”… blah! It’s a groupthink party line established and maintained by criticism of difference and guilt. It’s the same kind of polarized “in-club” that most marginalized groups form, I suppose, to react and protect themselves against oppression, but it annoys me when it passes as a solution when it’s fundamentally part of the same problem.

  17. Meitar Moscovitz Says:

    This is a fantastic, not to mention important, post. Thank you so much for writing it.

    There are, of course, more situations than drop down menus where this problem manifests, and the problem isn’t even limited to form controls (although that’s a pretty striking example). I’ve seen everything from bad copy and advertising to entire applications written with a gender-binary view of things. (Can we say Flock Gloss?)

    Naturally, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about how to advise a web property to tackle these issues. I’ve been doing thinking about this issue for a while now, too, and some things are finally beginning to crystalize in my mind, while others are just forming.

    Also, just FYI, I’m just about to send you an email as well, and just wanted to mention that here in case the email got caught by a spam filter. (I promise I’m not a spammer.) ;)

  18. Jordan Says:

    Sarah, thank you for being on the front lines of this. These things are not immediately obvious to everyone, and it’s very important to have allies repeating it loud and clear.

    Emma, have people asked you to confront your own privilege about this before? Did you really find that to be a problem? Why?

    From a strictly data-gathering perspective, if you think race and gender categories provide “a great deal of information”, isn’t it still important to ask whether you’re actually LOSING data by giving the wrong options and no room for dissent from the person providing the information? If a website *requires* a wrong answer from someone, that is polarizing. That creates an “in-club.”

    Also, nobody is beaten or segregated for their religion here? Where is “here”?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-rodda/muslim-children-gassed-at_b_130076.html
    http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/US-pilot-refuses-to-fly-with-Sikhs-onboard/390955/
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTGTd_73csE

  19. Emma Says:

    @Jordan
    Again, wildly missing my point and making it about me, instead of about what I’m saying. Which, again, underscores my point: when people disagree with the party line, they are attacked personally – assumed to be bigots, assumed their ideas are only the result of their “unquestioned privilege”. I would have to go through my “sexual minority street cred” to be listened to, and I don’t feel like it. Bah.

    Yes, fine, 9/11 changes the religion-isn’t-charged landscape. I missed that point in my analysis. You win (but miss my point entirely). Yay for you.

  20. Melissa Gira Grant Says:

    @Emma:

    “when people disagree with the party line, they are attacked personally – assumed to be bigots, assumed their ideas are only the result of their “unquestioned privilege”.”

    I don’t mean to level something so heavy at you in a blog comment — I’m sure Jordan isn’t, either.

    Having a conversation reduced to a debate is why I don’t think the framework of “political corectness” serves any of us very well. It frames things immediately in terms of a ruling class & an underclass — the same thing you highlighted as an issue when teasing out what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about gender & race.

    Unquestioned privilege is real. I’m a white female-bodied, female-identified person, and I normally don’t like wearing the hat of “Question your privilege” in these conversations, because I’ve felt like my voice has been minimized in the past, too — as not queer enough, as not genderqueer enough, as not kinky enough. I’m sort of over it, this idea of competing when it comes to privilege.

    That said, I’m a white girl who passes as a girl and wants to be seen as a girl. It’s pretty easy for me to say “I’m over it.” I don’t lose a lot when I say, “Let’s not make this about identity politics.” So when I see other people doing the same thing, asking someone from a comparatively marginalized background to “not make it about being p.c.” — that’s why my hackles get raised. It’s easy for us to say something like that. It’s comfortable. And usually, it’s at someone else’s expense.

  21. sarah Says:

    Okay, guys. Stop. This conversation is starting to scare me.

    Emma, Melissa, and Jordan — you’re all friends of mine with lots in common, and if you were in the same room with each other, you would not be treating each other like this. You would be far more compassionate with one another.

    Your perspectives here are all valid, and your beliefs and values are actually similar. There isn’t an argument here. We’re just picking apart words.

    I would like you to leave it here.

  22. Emma Says:

    Sarah,

    I don’t know that I would be any different in person on this issue, but I’ll respect your blog space.

    Emma

  23. sarah Says:

    The conversation above was just shifted off-blog. If anyone would like to get into it, you can contact me.

  24. Uncke & Grannna Says:

    Hey! I was trying to show your grandmother what you do and you still haven’t posted something new here. But then I showed her how to Google you and I’m not sure when you sleep. We read the blog about the kid named Stephen that you had a crush on when you were 11. Grandma loved it! I like this one. You are saying something important here.
    As your grandma says, “I have wonderful grandchildren”

  25. Franco Uno Says:

    We all these sensitivities, we keep painting ourselves into all kinds of corners. All this talk about race these days… Didn’t He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken claim that we live in a post-racial society? Should we still have affirmative action in a country that elects an African American (a real African American BTW, unlike most US blacks).

    My point: Do you think that Muslims – that very sensitive cultural minority that the liberal-minded bend over backwards not to offend – would accept this gender-bender philosophy? That’s a bit of a “clash of cultures” conundrum, innit?

  26. Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed › Stalker update for 2009-04-24 Says:

    [...] sensical to me that analyzing #gender issues borrows from #race. @sarahdopp writes about it @ http://sarahdopp.com/blog/?p=514 in reply to Mollena [...]

  27. George Baev Says:

    One idea from a boring web developer:

    Use free text tags, separated by commas, to categorize the gender, feelings, opinions, ideas…

    It is technically possible, effort-less and completely useless when one wishes to summarize the universe in everyone of us.

  28. Dopp Juice » Blog Archive » Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender Says:

    [...] year ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, asking people to stop and think about how they’re handling gender (and race, for that [...]

  29. Jacob Says:

    Why do people need to make a huge deal out of petty stuff like this?

    And–might I remind you–there are many of transitioned transsexuals who identify on the ‘binary’, who conform to the sex they chose to live as. Seriously. Not everyone like that is ‘queer’.

  30. Donna Says:

    Many, many people focus on a small seemingly unimportant issue (what should I choose in this drop down box?!) over the larger, overwhelmingly life changing stuff. The man with cancer rants on and on about the surliness of the chemo nurse.

  31. Anonymous Says:

    Businesses will change their drop-down menus when it becomes profitable to do so. No sooner.

  32. Meitar Moscovitz Says:

    Businesses will change their drop-down menus when it becomes profitable to do so. No sooner.

    Wow, really? That’s AWESOME, because Digg.com already changed their drop-down menu! :D It’s wonderful to learn that changing drop-down menus to include gender variance is already profitable. ;)

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  34. » Why gender is a text field: more on ambiguity Says:

    [...] Another good post about gender and dropdowns. [...]

  35. Dopp Juice » Blog Archive » “Gender is a Text Field” (Diaspora, backstory, and context) Says:

    [...] years ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, requesting that everyone think about how they are approaching Gender in their data collection [...]

  36. Byron Olsen Says:

    Why is this open letter addressed only to “Silicon Valley”? If you don’t believe that work done by web developers across the globe matters, then you’re not buying into your own message. It’s time for people to stop believing that the tiny parcel of land that is Santa Clara County is the end-all and be-all of all things web.

  37. Anonymous Says:

    Alright…now before I voice my opinions on this particular subject, I need to clarify a major point (and possibly a few other ones). I hold no emotions and have no support, negative or positive, toward the LGBT community. That being said, I find it wrong for one to be lesbian or gay; should one feel that way I believe one should change his/her gender (preserves a natural order).

    Now, that being said, there is no real need for a change. One should simply put down the gender they are biologically. Gender is only truly important in statistics, and lesbians and gays are the vast minority in the world. I’d personally be interested in seeing the results of splitting the choice into 3; original, current, and mental gender, but at the same time, that is only of personal interest, there is no real need.

    Now that being said; I support the right to be of whatever orientation you want. However I also believe that as a human you have a duty to procreate and pass on your genes to the next generation. So while I personally do not agree with it; the choice belongs to the person in question and nobody else.

    (I lose track of original goals easy.)

  38. they call me ‘her’ « homofilly Says:

    [...] I met Sarah Dopp at She’s Geeky, and we talked about dropdown menus, and it all fell into [...]

  39. Tuxie Says:

    @Anonymous, December 9th: So basically, what you’re saying is “I support your right to be different as long as you’re like everybody else and I still think it’s wrong.”

    How open minded.

  40. New Social Network allows you to define your gender | gaelick Says:

    [...] — who identifies as an “Androgynous Queer Girl” — who had written this in her blog: Now imagine signing up for a cool website, and then being required to select an option from a [...]

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  43. Dopp Juice » Blog Archive » Can I get a witness? Says:

    [...] I have written it so. many. love [...]

  44. C.A. Young Says:

    I thought you might like to know that I just linked this to somebody in my workplace in the hopes of improving an online system that put me in exactly that mental bathroom framework (albeit with more second-guessing; I’ve been living out as male since 2006 and haven’t used a women’s restroom more than maybe three times since).

    This post is brilliant. Thank you.