Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

blackbox

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?

okcupid-dropdown

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:

sgoselect… but it still runs into the “finite number of options” problem, even in the Advanced view.

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.

Love,
Sarah

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!

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30 Responses to “Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender”

  1. SarahD Says:

    My UU church has the following question on the Religious Education form that all parents need to fill out before enrolling their children in the UU equivalent of sunday school.

    What gender does your child self-identify as:

    Male
    Female
    Neither

    I liked the idea of “how does a person think of themselves” as opposed to many of the other questions that gender encompasses.

  2. johanna Says:

    Yay :-)
    I think you must mean that Option 1 is NOT the most inclusive … measure? And, in the “note” at the beginning, you write that gender is … completed?
    From a pedantic editor ;-)

  3. chris Says:

    I recently had to identify my gender for a feedback poll regarding the Women, Action, & Media Conference.

    The options were: female, male, FTM, MTF, intersex, and other. It was AWESOME. Of course, this was a conference about gender, but I would love to see the idea of gender-spectrum gain more traction in the mainstream.

  4. Tom Says:

    Really interesting post, and I think these are really great articles. There is an interesting balance, though, that I don’t think was discussed: gender surveys are meant to serve to get information and make some use of it. Basically, a ‘tags’ based gender input might make lots of sense for a social network or even serve purposes for networking, but might not fit into statistics. And I’d wonder whether the ‘gender slider’ approach would be useful outside of statistics: what is the display method? Another slider? Certainly there are interesting interfaces to be built around this, but the awkwardness of having a scalar value instead of a discrete value means that you’d have a lot of new building to do.

    A very interesting post! I hope this becomes reality.

  5. sarah Says:

    Johanna,

    *swoon*

    Fixed! Thank you, Editor. Those were big errors.

    That’s what I get for planning, writing, and publishing all in under an hour. ;)

    S

  6. sarah Says:

    Tom — great points! I totally understand the data-use perspective and realize now that I didn’t spend much time acknowledging it here. But you’re right — “encouraging self-expression” is usually NOT a site’s main goal when asking for gender. (but when it is, they could do it better.)

    Options 1 and 3 seem like good alternatives to the required two-option approach when simple data management is the highest priority.

    Another fair point that was brought up at She’s Geeky: sometimes data is collected in the interest of helping less privileged groups (in this case, usually women). In those cases, they really need that category. But then again, they could still handle it with Options 1 or 3.

    For all the stuff in Option 4, you’re absolutely right: there’s a lot of new building to do.

    (isn’t it exciting?) :)

  7. jenka Says:

    If you do create a new gender drop-down design, you should call it the Dopp-down menu.

    wah wah.

    Seriously, tho, this is very interesting. I particularly appreciate the OK Cupid approach, where you could actually indicate how important this all is (or isn’t) to you. As someone for whom gender stuff is admittedly not very important, seeing that its significance is itself on a relative spectrum makes it more relevant. I doubt the paltry options that dominate the default gender drop down are there due to deliberate insensitivity on the parts of the site creators. If it’s not part of your own experience, it tends to not register quite so bright on your radar.

    Also, don’t know if you saw this before, but reading this I thought you’d appreciate it:

    http://social-creature.com/non-definition-as-a-defined-identity

  8. sarah Says:

    wah wah.

    (ROFL)

  9. SLG Says:

    I just wanted to point out that even people whose gender isn’t complicated in the way you mean might still prefer not to specify it either–let’s imagine for political reasons, spiritual beliefs, or the desire for privacy you mention. So really, if you’re going to add a third option, you probably should add a fourth also. One for people who want to assert a non-binary gender, and one for people who prefer to stay silent about/protest/erase the entire issue.

  10. sarah Says:

    SLG: Nice connection. I like that.

  11. Catherine Says:

    The Dopp-down menu. Best. Idea. EVER.

    As ever, Sarah, you rock – both in general, and my socks. Kudos!

  12. Ariel Says:

    I recently conducted a reader survey for my nontraditional wedding website. I have a small but vocal transgender readership, and I made the mistake of allowing the survey to autopopulate the gender options. I immediately received an email suggesting I change it — ack! It was an embarrassing error! — with one reader suggesting the three options be:

    Male
    Female
    Neither/Both

    Only 2% of my readers selected that option, but I was so glad I had it there.

  13. slothrop Says:

    For most websites, what they probably really want to know is the user’s choice between “Male,” “Female,” and “I don’t nicely match with your demography and targeting advertisement to me by my gender identity won’t work.”

  14. sarah Says:

    slothrop: well said!

    ariel: i love it. :)

  15. Dopp Juice » Blog Archive » The “Dopp-Down Menu” (kidding!) early mockup Says:

    [...] posting yesterday’s set of suggestions for designing a better drop-down menu for gender, someone took me up on the design challenge that I slipped into the last paragraph, and within an [...]

  16. Carla-Lee.com » Twitter Updates for 2010-02-07 Says:

    [...] @sarahdopp My ideas for designing a better drop-down menu to ask about gender: http://www.sarahdopp.com/blog/?p=1335 [...]

  17. Janet Says:

    I love the “it’s complicated” option!

    In the world of homeless housing providers, the required federal government data management system has now included the options: Male, Female, Male to Female and Female to Male… as well as “don’t know” and “refuse to answer”

    Great discussion!

  18. Stompy Boots Linkspam | Geek Feminism Blog Says:

    [...] a discussion on the topic at She’s Geeky, Sarah Dopp discusses gender in forms and offers some [...]

  19. Tom Morris Says:

    I’ve been somewhat involved in the FOAF and microformats community in the past (still am, but less so). One of the things I’m very happy with is that the foaf:gender property is an open string field with two preset values – the lower-case string ‘male’ and the lower-case string ‘female’. But if neither of those fit, you can put in any string you like.

    Many GUI frameworks have a text-input/drop-down combo (Combobox in WinForms, JComboBox in Swing etc.) – preload those with male and female, and let people freely fill in whatever other word or phrase they want to use if they don’t see themselves as male or female. Of course, context and sanity needs to operate here: signing up for a social network is different than getting a quote for health insurance. Be clear whether you want self-identified gender or biological sex. Hint: if you are more like Facebook and less like the Department of Health, you probably want gender…

  20. ADTSecurity Says:

    Thanks! This helped a lot! I’ve seen a few
    rather confusing sites lately, this cleared up a lot confusion I had.

  21. jon Says:

    Great points — and loved the follow-on post too.

    For a survey that Qworky did recently, we decided to implement gender as multiple choice check boxes, including options of male, female, transgender, genderqueer, and decline-to-state. [Now that I've read this post, I'd probably add an "it's complicated" option as well.]

    It’s not perfect, but seems to strike a good balance between inclusiveness and data analysis.

    jon

  22. Amy Says:

    I think it is good that we change the drop down menu.. I think it’ll make a huge difference for customers and ultimately can be nothing but good!
    -Amy
    Elements Papers

  23. Transfinite Says:

    Thanks for linking me to this! It was really interesting.

    (One thing I just noticed: This comment form’s tab order is broken somehow. When I press tab, I go up to the top of the page instead of to the “Submit Comment” button.)

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

    [...] followed up on that workshop by writing another post called “Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender,” which listed all the ideas I thought could reasonably improve the data collection process, [...]

  25. evgelen Says:

    great article. thank you for your hard work

  26. Quora Says:

    Should “other” be included as a choice on an web based form that asks the persons gender?…

    As Kae Klepitskaya says, limiting gender choices to “male” and “female” leaves out a lot of people. Providing an “other” option isn’t ideal either, though: it also reinforces the notion that male and female are normal and everything else can be …

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  28. Aimee Says:

    Great Information. I agree with the above poster about the “it’s complicated” option!

  29. Sonia Says:

    This was hugely helpful for me, thank you. I’ve been concerned about this issue in my research work for a while now but haven’t been sure how to approach it. What’s your opinion about simply having a free text box for people to complete with their preferred gender? I’m preparing a paper-based survey right now and that was the best option I could come up with.

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