Christin Milloy:

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How-To: Three Simple Ways to “Upgrade” Gender in Forms and Data Collection


Maybe you’re an awesome executive at a super-cool agency, or perhaps the data officer at a forward-thinking not-for-profit doing work in LGBTQ communities. Maybe you’re just interested in improving accessibility, by removing the default mandatory requirement of gender specification on your forms.

Since you’re already here, you probably already know the reasons why gender shouldn’t be a required field. So instead, here’s a practical guide to how this works in practice, plus three simple ways your organization can quickly get back up-to-speed.

Three fruit boxes: Pears, Apples, and Oranges.

What are you comparing?

First, the most obvious question: Do you even need to collect sex/gender data at all? Since we’ve decided to make this field optional, we should reflect on whether this data is important enough to even bother collecting in the first place. If we’re already collecting a preferred honorific in a separate field (Dr./Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms/Mx etc.), or if we have no campaigns or purpose for gender segmentation, we may be collecting gender for no good reason. We don’t need it to resolve identity because name, birth date and other fields are enough for that, and besides: two people with the same name probably share the same gender anyway. Clearing useless data is an opportunity to streamline your system, so give serious consideration to simply dropping gender entirely.

If you decide there is a good reason to keep using it, let’s continue the discussion by making sure we understand our terms correctly: “gender” vs “sex.” Forget what you think you know about the labels on your forms… even odds are those forms may currently be mislabelled.

Because the sex of a person usually corresponds to the gender they express in an order that is familiar to everyone, there is a very common misconception that sex and gender are the same thing. But because this is not true for all people, a functional data system needs to treat these two fields as independent data in order to ensure data integrity, and to prevent discrimination. So the next question we need to ask is which data are we collecting?

Consider the purpose of the dataset. If your data is generally geared toward segmenting your records into groups of men and women, or boys and girls, then what you’re talking about is “gender.” If this describes your organization, the first thing you should do is make sure your forms are labelled “gender,” and not “sex.”

If, for some reason, your marketing campaign, email newsletter, club membership or contact directory is actually intended to segment your customers specifically according to the shape of their genitalia, then congratulations: you have an edge case scenario. Some examples of organizational imperatives that might drive this type of edge-case scenario include Health Insurers’ databases, or Healthcare provider files. In this situation, you should definitely be collecting both sex and gender—as separate fields.

Now that that’s settled, let’s discuss how to actually go about overhauling the data collection.

Method 1: Simply Make it Optional!

Just don’t require it. You can ask, but make it an optional field on your forms, whether online or in a printed format. This can be as simple as adding a third option to existing forms, so it need not break your database design nor overly burden your IT department.

Here is an example of how that might look:

Male  Female  Not Specified

For database-enabled systems, like web-based forms and mobile apps, where male carries a value of “M” and female carries “F,” the third option may carry a value such as “X” or “0” (the numeral zero). This option can be added easily and cheaply by your IT resource, as long as the value assigned to the third selection does not violate the database’s existing “type” restrictions (e.g. that the data be formatted as a string one-character in length).

It’s that easy, and you’re compliant. Congratulations!

Method 2: Collect Better Gender Data

You have the opportunity to be as inclusive as possible, and even open up new pathways for differently segmented campaigns. Your system can include additional options, such as these ones:

Male  Female  Both  Neither None  Other  Rather not say

Most users will stop reading after the first two options, but not all of them will. If gender is worth collecting for the main two groups, then it stands to reason it is also worth collecting the less common segmentations too: there is no compelling reason against doing so.

Also, you will have the coolest application forms and datasets on the block, and all the other organizations will be jealous.

Method 3: Pull a “Facebook” and give your users a world of choices

Facebook made headlines when they unveiled 56 custom gender options to North-American consumers in 2014. The canned selections on the site are many and varied, designed to appeal to the diverse audience which righteously demanded the feature in the first place.

However, a little pinch of Mark Zuckerberg marketing magic happens in the back-end, whereby each canned selection is appropriately “mapped down” onto the standard set of gender segmentations for marketing purposes (male, female, and unspecified). So, whoever picks cis male is marketed to as a man, MTF or trans woman is marketed to as a woman, genderqueer, non-binary, or neutrois all map down to “not specified,” and so on.

If none of the canned selections suit the user’s fancy, they can actually type whatever they want into the freeform text box. It is highly probable that when any “new” gender identity is entered by enough users to attract analytical attention, it becomes subject to research by Facebook’s marketing team and is then mapped down into conventionally gendered market segments as appropriate.

The need for market segmentation is satisfied, while at the same time the original purpose intended by the user when entering their data is satisfactorily fulfilled: the original contents are populated directly into the “About” section on their personal profile, so all the world can see precisely how they’ve chosen to express themselves.

If your organization’s media is social, you must consider the growing trend among affluent youth to express their gender identities in ever more varied and complex ways (while always keeping the traditional options open, for the old timers). Your users will appreciate it, and it lets them know that everyone is welcome.

2 Comments

  1. KaMo
    Friday, 2015.06.26 at 22:24

    Do you have a reference for the mention that “growing trend among affluent youth to express their gender identities in ever more varied and complex ways”? I’m interested in learning more about that.

    • Christin Scarlett Milloy
      Tuesday, 2015.10.06 at 16:05

      Non-cis identities are just as common in all walks of life, but statistics show that trans kids from stronger economic backgrounds have more stability to come out and find support, so they publicly identify more often. Hope this helps.

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