How to ask about gender

by Claire Gowler
Posted on 10 November 2014
read time: 5 minutes

As web developers, we collect a lot of information about users and it's important that we do this in an inclusive and sensitive manner. This post aims to explain what we mean by gender variance, specific issues gender variant people face and how we can design services to help them.

It is difficult to estimate the number of transgender and non-binary gendered people in the UK but current figures suggest that between 1 and 5 percent of the population experience some form of gender variance. This number will be higher in areas such as mental health and social care.

What is gender variance?

There are several forms of gender variance. Intersex is a term used to describe people who have genetic or physical conditions that don't fit into society's typical male or female definitions. Transgender people are people who transition from one gender to another, this can be through the use of hormones, surgery or gender expression. Non-binary refers to people who identify outside of the male/female gender identity. They may identify as a mix of male and female, as a third gender or they may not have a gender at all.

People who have a gender identity that aligns with their physical sex are known as cisgender, from the chemistry term cis which means 'same'.

What issues will we need to consider?

Privacy is paramount for gender variant users. To begin with, a lot of gender variant people may not be 'out' at work but may be at home, or may just be out to friends. This may mean that users have inconsistent gender data if you operate many services, especially if your method of collecting gender information is inconsistent across services. When Google switched to using Hangouts for Android, some transgender people were outed to their employers when their personal and work accounts were merged in the single application. This can cause great emotional distress and put vulnerable people in danger.

At present, government documentation and identification only allow for male or female as gender markers. It costs money and effort to get this documentation changed for transgender people and non-binary people don't have an option. Therefore some users will not have legal identification that matched their gender. This could also apply to names; transgender people may not have documentation that reflects their name in their identified gender.

What can we do?

These are some brief and simple recommendations that you can put into practice that will help make your service as gender inclusive as possible.

  1. Be obvious about privacy - Let users know which information will be viewable by the public and by other users, this will allow people to make an informed decision about what information to disclose in order to avoid being possibly outed or threatened.
  2. Consider whether you need to use titles – Titles (such as Mr, Miss, Dr etc) tend to show up on forms by default and mostly as a way to find out how to address a user when communicating with them. However some websites use them as a soft way of asking about gender, there are even sites that have separate titles for Dr (male) and Dr (female). As a non-binary person, this is one of my biggest issues when filling in forms. There is a gender neutral title of Mx that banks and the DVLA accept so consider having this as an option. It is also worth making this an optional field; a person is not legally required to have a title and if they choose to not have a title you can refer to them using their full name if required.
  3. Think about what you actually want to ask – It is becoming more common to ask what pronoun a user prefers. 'They' is an acceptable gender neutral pronoun (but there are others such as zie/zir). If you are a health service that wishes to know gender information in order to assume a physical attribute, ask about the attribute instead.
  4. If you must ask, be open about options – If you do need to ask about gender, wording the question in an inclusive way can be really useful. 'What gender do you identify as?' is a good way. In terms of the field itself, an open text field is best from the user's perspective because there are quite a few different gender identities. Facebook recently allowed users to pick a gender identity from a list of 51 which might not be practical for you. If you want to restrict options for statistical reasons, allow people to opt-out. Try not to use 'Other' as an option as this can alienate people, also 'transgender' is a bad option because transgender people still (not always) identify as male or female.
  5. Make it easy to change information – Gender discovery and the act of transition and coming out is a long process. Users may sign up to your service as their assigned or legal gender and want to change their gender or name in the future. This can be a difficult process so it's important that you make this as easy as possible. It should always be editable by the user. If this is not possible, allow users to ask you to change the data via online forms or chat as they may not feel comfortable using phones.

This layout shows possible solutions for some of the above points.

Form layout example

Further reading

This is a very complex area and you may wish to spend some time reading up on the subject. Here are some good websites:

  • http://nonbinary.org has a wiki that explains some of the different identities and has a list of services and what gender neutral options they offer.
  • http://nonbinary.co.uk are in the process of writing a best practice document on this issue and do work with organisations such as UCAS to help them collect gender information in the best ways.
  • http://www.allabouttrans.org.uk run workshops for media organisations around representation of transgender and non-binary people.
  • http://askingaboutgender.tumblr.com is my personal project to collect good examples of gender information practices and you can submit examples or ask questions.

About Me

There are three things that I'm a massive geek about; videogames, mythology and gender. Gender may seem like a weird interest to have but as a non-binary person I want to help organisations be more inclusive to people like me and people with other gender identities. Please do leave a comment below if you have any questions.

Posted on 10 November 2014 - By Claire Gowler
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