say no to gender drop-down boxes!

I’ve written and presented on this topic before, and I’m sure other people have written about it as well, but I’m so tired of the ‘drop-down’ choice for gender.  I bring it up today mainly because I have been playing around on Google+ and was disappointed by its gender options: namely, a drop-down consisting of male, female and other.
really google?
I chose this while recognizing their clumsy marginalizing attempt at inclusion. There were so many other possibilities, limited by their narrow view of the world and the best-practices that for no reason at all has developers building gender fields as drop-downs, while other items, such as religion, education, political affiliations are all write-ins.
Facebook has the drop-down options for male and female. I didn’t choose one. They refer to me as ‘their’ in posts. Online surveys (including many academic ones), contact forms, etc, require gender as well. Also usually male and female only.
But, why have a drop-down? why not, as the fledgling (if even still existing) social networking site Diaspora did, create an empty text box for users to fill in? It looked something like this:

But, there was a lot of disagreement, argument over whether this could work commercially or not. And while there are so many reasons to argue against the commercial viability aspect, which I won’t get into here, I will engage with it, and help us all to move on from the oppressive gender drop-down.

The reasons given were related to ideas around clean information, ways of garnering information that would be helpful / useful to site maintainers and developers as well as marketing folks. And, of course, another question was about pronouns- after all, if you don’t choose male or female, how would the site know what pronoun to call you? (this was snark, btw). (read about it here). As I said before, Facebook solves my lack of gender choice by calling me ‘their’ – not grammatically pretty, but it does the job.

Here’s a rough way to collect more granular information:

Then, if the ‘write-in’ option is chosen, another choice is made available:

I realize that this is a VERY ROUGH SKETCH of what is possible, but it solves all the major issues that site developers were claiming, at least in the case of Diaspora.
The site now uses your write in options, connects them to each other in much the same way as male-he,him and female-she,her connections have to be written into the code.
It takes a little thinking on the part of the site developers, at least for now, but like everything else, best practices have to start somewhere, get refined by the masses, and become commonplace over time.
So, let’s do it! Help to refine this, make it better- what works / doesn’t work?

5 thoughts on “say no to gender drop-down boxes!

  1. This is a really great point. As I have been following the Google+ issue, my first response was that Google didn’t actually provide me with gender choices/options at all but rather sexed ones. I was miffed that I was asked how I identify but then asked about my biological/choromosomal status. In my mind it felt jarring and disconnected. The issue the you point out here is another matter entirely–and one that I appreciate. Developers are saying that they have no options but when we look at what is already in existence we see that there are already probably solutions in place–the need is for people to look at what is and transfer it to new areas; case and point: write in boxes. I saw that Google has responded to people’s concerns on another site and it seems that they are at least actively seeking to remedy this situation. I suppose that’s something.

  2. Mickey – you are so right about the bio/chrom status vs. gender issue. This should also be considered in a larger analysis of web standards and practices (which is what I am currently working on).
    The drop-down is a standard for site design because it is useful for categorizing a limited number of items. It does max-out pretty quickly – I’m sure you’ve seen the drop-downs that list every country in the world. It’s annoying to use (type M to get Maryland, and you still have to scroll down past Maine). But site designers use it because out of the existing options, it is the easiest solution.
    In terms of gender, if people don’t think beyond male and female, the drop-down seems to be the logical choice- 2 options, kept in an easily understandable interface.
    Google+ has (belatedly) thought beyond 2 genders, and is trying to be accommodating- but ‘other’ is not an acceptable choice, even though I’ve personally chosen it as my gender option. (I wonder what the numbers are on its use…)
    This is a case where the standard prevents other kinds of thinking. I used the word belated before because if they had thought about gender beyond the idea of drop-down earlier on in their development process, they would have realized that coming up with an appropriate list would be difficult at best, and perhaps rethought the drop down entirely.

  3. I wonder how much gender choices have to do with marketing. One of my friends decided to switch from Female to Male on their Pandora account. Previously, they were barraged by ads for diet foods, hair care products, and other related things. After switching, they received technology-related marketing and updates on environmental activism. Pandora is not as interest-centered as Google+ or Facebook is, but gender probably serves a similar function on both.
    Fetlife presents an interesting alternative in that it incorporates a variety of gender identities and sexual orientations into their drop down menu boxes. However, I’m not sure that does much to solve the fundamental problem of identifying oneself vs. choosing an identity. Also, dating websites and gender is a whole other bag.

  4. Anton- thanks for pointing out Fetlife. It does give more options under ‘gender,’ provides a ‘sexual orientation category’ and in both gives a choice of ‘non-applicable.’ These of course, are still limited to the options that the site developers thought to include, and are still very western ideas of what gender encompasses. But it is interesting to look at how typifications become standards.
    As you pointed out, there is still identifying oneself, choosing an identity, and the complications that go along with them. This poses a larger question as to why these categories of distinction become necessary for a site to function.

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