Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A quick morning rant about "gender" and data collection

This morning I read that Google+ is going to make your name and "gender" required to be public if you want to participate.  This bothers me for several reasons:

Web sites and forms notoriously say "gender" when they mean "sex" and only put M/F or Male/Female as options. When this type of choice is required but called "gender" it erases many people who do not feel that those options cover their gender since that is actually something way more mutable than your assigned sex at birth.  Solutions: Call it "sex" which is really what those two categories are or don't make something that is not in fact binary into a required choice of two options.

Google are so proud of being all scientific and data driven and I'm frustrated that they would not take the opportunity on their new potentially game-changing social platform to re-vamp data collection. Don't they have the processing power to allow people to put in whatever they like as "gender" and let the power of the search sort things out in the end?  If a small number of people want to put "jedi" or "dog" let those people find each other!  Who cares if there are some people who don't feel like Male/Female defines them?  Why Google? Why do you want to act like two boxes can cover the breadth of human experience as it relates to gender in this world?  Why can't you innovate on the small things as well as the big things that affect human interactions?

I'd really like to see a shift in how we collect data where there is more trust that the user knows who and what they are and that they want to share this information at their comfort level and that those on the other side, let's call them advertisers (cause isn't that what it all comes down to?), be the ones to deal with the outliers and uniqueness of human experience instead of trying to bash everyone into a two-party system.

Sidenote: When I have collected data recently for PyStar and allowed the gender field to be a text box I have found that the expected percentage (98%) of people entered "typical" information like woman, girl, female and that those who needed to express a different response appreciated the ability to do so by entering something else.  Leaving this field to user input choice did not result in a messy, chaotic list of random words or unidentifiable descriptors.  I fear not that most people will suddenly start to be something else when given more autonomy on forms.

14 comments:

Tony Mechelynck said...

Hmm... I suppose "Masculine / Feminine / Neutral", while corresponding to the "grammatical" definition of gender, wouldn't really be appreciated. If they want a closed choice, what about "Sex: Male / Female / Other". Not a wide enough choice maybe. I suppose "Male / Female / Other / None of your business" might be better.

Harsh86 said...

Google Profiles != Google+

Minh Nguyễn said...

Perhaps they’re worried about running afoul of naïve Web filters?

Kait85 said...

mhm, more to the point why do they need to even make it public knowledge what someone chooses. Really I don't see why they couldn't make it an optional thing to answer.. and let people leave it blank who want to.

jenzed said...

I've often pondered the difference between the word "gender" and the word "sex", and I had previously come to the conclusion that it was preferable to use "gender" to refer to the binary assigned sex of a person. This post is making me re-think that.

Another aspect (that goes well beyond the bounds of language) is the fact that, biologically, sex is not binary - it's a spectrum. As you point out, people should be allowed to use their own words to describe themselves because there isn't a set of broadly accepted terms that describe all the shades of sex.

As always, Lukas, I appreciate and applaud your thoughts on sex (the gender kind) in technology. Mozilla is lucky to have you.

Nobody said...

You can select "other" unless I'm mistaken.

starwed said...

Even "sex" as defined by chromosones isn't completely binary -- and I'm sure you'd run into the same problem of folk being disinclined to affirmatively choose one or the other.

booniffle said...

How about "Enter your Sex Chromosomes"?

Unknown said...

While Google profiles don't allow free-form text entry for Gender, they don't restrict to just "Male" and "Female" either -- there's also an "Other" choice.

I don't know if this influences your argument much, but it seems like it weakens claims that Google wants to "act like two boxes can cover the breadth of human experience".

Dave C said...

The article didn't say this, so I'm not sure if you're aware or not - Google+ isn't as binary as you might think it is. There's three options in the "Gender" dropbox: "Male", "Female", and "Other".

( see: http://i.imgur.com/y6iyx.png )

Now, I realize that "Other" is not exactly the best label and it's inconvenient that they don't allow you to enter in a custom identity, but this is a step ahead of Facebook. I do agree that the privacy question needs to be addressed, since I'm sure there are people who don't want to disclose their gender identity. At least Facebook allows you to hide your selection if you want, or if you don't identify as "male" or "female".

And even though your experience with PyStar's open-ended text box showed that most people wrote "typical" information, it seems much more difficult for a social networking website to manage, since users are often referred to in third-person pronouns. Having to interpret dozens of variations on "male" or "female" as "he" or "she" is probably not the easiest to do.

It would be ideal if there was an option to enter in pronoun choice as well, but I can't imagine that happening anytime soon. But since Google+ is in its infancy and they already have an "other" option, it may be that Google+ will eventually allow for this kind of customization.

skierpage said...

I joined Facebook before its "I am: [Select Sex]" became mandatory, and they've begged me several times to fill it in. Some literate programmer at Facebook hates outputting "S Page updated their profile" :-)

Judy said...

I just got my Google+ invite from a friend, after reading this post this morning. I went to sign in, and they now have the choice of Male/Female/Other. Progress?

riley.calais said...

I feel weird plus-oneing this, and using my google account to post this comment.

Also for commenting months after the original post.

riley.calais said...

I feel weird plus-oneing this.