A 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 matter) in their community websites. The short version is that if you’re requiring users to select their gender from a drop-down menu that has two options in it, you’re alienating some people. I didn’t offer alternative solutions at the time — it was just a request for everyone to think about it.
(Note: if you’re not clear on why gender is a complicated issue in data collection, please stop right now and go read that other post before continuing. This will make a lot more sense after you do so.)
After grappling with this problem on a few other projects, and talking about it in a session last week at She’s Geeky (I called it “My gender broke your drop-down menu…”), I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.
Alternatives to asking for a user’s gender in a required two-option drop-down menu…
Option 1: Make it Optional
Baby steps. If the idea of getting fancy with your data collection method gives you nightmares, just remove the red asterisk. Stop making it required! Most people will still answer the question, and those who don’t want to will select not to. Put a plan in place for how to treat and account for those who don’t want to declare their genders, and you’re done. It’s not the most celebratory or inclusive measure, but it is a very clean way to resolve a lot of problems.
Option 2: Don’t Ask At All
Instead of asking for gender, ask for what you actually want to know.
Is it what honorific should precede the person’s name? Well, then gender’s not going to tell you if they’re a doctor or a reverend, is it? Give them a comprehensive list of options, and allow them to select none, if they wish. (And really, why do we use these again? My preference is to drop them entirely.)
Is it what marketing you think they’ll respond best to? Newsflash: not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars. Ask them about their interests and market to them on that basis, instead.
Is gender not actually relevant at all, except that you think it makes for an interesting statistic? Meh. I’d like to convince you that you really shouldn’t touch it, but if I’m not going to win that argument, please see Option 1.
Option 3: Have a Third Option
Your drop-down menus can have more than two options. Some people are trying three.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my current position:
- “Other” is a poor choice for a third option. Why? Because gender-nonconforming people are othered enough as it is.
- A more useful choice would be “Decline to State” (or something similar) — then it’s not about non-conformity, it’s about privacy.
- But taking this a bit further, I’d like to submit “It’s Complicated” for consideration as the new third option. Most gender-nonconforming types will smile at you for it. It tells them you understand.
I’ve seen some people try to implement a “lots of options” dropdown menu, but I don’t really recommend this route, for two reasons:
- What if someone looks at the list and doesn’t identify with any of the words? You just alienated them much further than your male/female dropdown menu was doing before.
- What if someone identifies as more than one thing on the list? Take, for example, a transsexual woman who is proud to identify as a woman. Are you really going to make her choose between “trans” and “woman”? Come on now. That’s insulting.
If you change it from a drop-down menu (“pick only one”) to a checkbox menu (“select all that apply”), you solve issue #2, but you still have issue #1 to grapple with. And let me tell you: if you think you can come up with a finite list of all the possible gender identities in the world, you’re wrong.
Option 4: Redesign the System
So you’re convinced that “male/female” is a deeply flawed data breakdown for the purpose of your website, but you want people to assert their identities, and you want them to get personal about it. Okay, then! Time to scrap the dropdowns and do something new. Here are some ideas…
A “gender spectrum” slider bar. Take a look at how Blackbox Republic is structuring their sexual identity data:
I could see a similar thing done with “masculine” and “feminine” at each end, and letting people self-identify.
Note: one huge problem with the spectrum model is that it’s too flat. I believe there are people who have “a lot of gender” (i.e. dripping both masculinity and femininity all over the place) and “not a lot of gender” (i.e. minimizing signals of any gender whatsoever), and on the spectrum, they might look the same. But that brings up my next idea, which is…
A second dropdown that asks how important gender is to them. Take a look at how OkCupid handles religion. You get one dropdown menu for how you identify, and a second dropdown menu for how important it is to you. For some people, their gender is a strongly identifying factor in their lives. For others, it’s nearly irrelevant. What if we just started asking that question?
You could also…
Get fancy and use Kreative Korp’s SGOSelect menu (or some variation on it), which basically says: if you have a traditional identity, you can use the simple form. And if you want to get more specific, you can switch over to the Advanced form:
And that brings me to my last suggestion, which so far seems to be my holy grail. I worked this out with my co-founder team at Boffery while we were strategizing the user interface… with some outside input from Kirrily Robert of Freebase:
An open-ended tagging field that suggests words as you type. I want to be able to define my gender as “female, androgynous, genderqueer.” And I believe that if we were all encouraged to, we would come up with a great rich vocabulary that uniquely characterizes ourselves in all the ways a two-option gender set is trying to do, but failing at. If the tagging system were set up to automatically suggest words as you typed, you could either loop in to what others are saying and be associated with that group, or create your own words and add them to the lexicon. The result would be a rich mix of groupable/categorizable labels (marketers: this is far more meaningful than what you’re currently working with), along with the ability for us to self-identify however we want.
I don’t have a picture for you ‘cuz it hasn’t been built yet. But if anyone understands what I’m talking about and wants to test it out, let me know.
I want in.
ETA: immediately after I posted this, a designer took a stab at the open-ended tagging field idea and sent me early concept mockups. Check ‘em out!