A person’s gender expression and/or gender identity may or may not be the same as their gender assigned at birth. Every human being is different and that includes their gender as well. An important distinction to make before we get into this article is to differentiate between sex and gender. Though people typically use these terms interchangeably, let’s make a clear picture of these.
Gender identity is one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves (such as man, woman, transgender etc.). While sex refers to a label male, female or intersex given to someone at birth based on their genitalia.
Gender Expression is the external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut etc. which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
Sexual orientation is an enduring pattern of romantic or sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or both sexes or more than one gender (Homosexual, bisexual & heterosexual). (Source: Wikipedia, hrc.org)
From our schools, we have been taught that there are only two genders. So it can be challenging to hear how broad the gender spectrum truly is. We have genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, transgender and a lot more. Our society is slowly embracing this gender diversity and accepting the fact that there are non-binary genders as well but our digital products are sometimes reluctant to this. For them, still, there are only two genders; Man & Woman. And the funniest part is that they are asking for gender but providing options for sex (Male & Female). Unfortunately, this is quite common.
I was also one of those designers who never cared about it till my client asked me this question ‘Why just 2 options for gender?’ and that was the moment I started thinking about it seriously. “What if my users don’t fit that mould? What if they don’t identify themselves as male or female?” I realized that I was making a serious mistake until now by not considering other genders. Yes, we all have gaps in our knowledge or experience that leave us insensitive to the kinds of exclusion other people face daily.
I hope you are aware of inclusive design. The term itself says it. Inclusive Design is the design of a product, service or an environment so that it can be accessed and used by all people regardless of age, gender and disability. Inclusive design considers the diversity of each individual.
Your client, your colleague or even you would be in a thought process that 99% of my target users will be men or women. Remaining 1% are just edge cases. But no, they are not edge-cases. They are human beings. We should consider the fact that we are in the path of digital transformation. Everything from a phone recharge to transferring funds to a bank account is through digital platforms. So we can’t simply ignore them by calling them as a minority or edge case, especially when you are designing for a vast audience like a social media, financial or an eCommerce application. Also, try to understand its impact on your users. Asking a non-binary person about their gender and forcing them to choose an option from male & female may be seen as offensive, hurtful and yet another reminder to them of how they aren’t accepted. Just like asking a trans person to use either a male or female public toilet.
Why do you need to know one’s gender?
Ask users their personal information only if you need it. Information like the user’s age, gender etc. are highly sensitive and strictly personal, so collect these details if it is going to contribute to their overall product usage experience.
For instance, one of the most famous music streaming applications is asking my gender. “What? That’s none of your business.” For what purpose do they need my gender? How is my gender going to affect my music listening experience?
Therefore if gender is not intrinsic to your experience, don’t collect it.
This is another example of a popular eCommerce site. I understand that they might need user’s gender to give them personalized experience & product suggestions. But do their users only come under these so-called genders?
How do you communicate the context to the users?
Inform users about the purpose for which they need your information and how their gender information will be used. Assure them that their personal information will be used only to enhance their experience.
How can we make a change?
Here are a few things you can do to make your designs more gender-inclusive.
Change the gender field
We should make things more lucid by changing the control we use. For instance, one can create a free text field with an auto-suggest option to display all possible genders. Or if you select ‘something else’, more options related to this would pop up. Here are some of the options to try.
a) Two genders and a free text box to enter if it is something else.
b) Four options and the fourth option gives the freedom not to disclose the gender.
c) A textbox with autosuggestion.
d) Two field options If you want to get the gender details precisely.
Use gender-inclusive language
You can use ‘others’ as an option but use it with caution. When you categorize a group of users into ‘others’ they might feel that you are cornering them. So if possible try avoiding ‘others’, instead use ‘something else’. Also, give them an option if they prefer not to reveal their gender. To give users that freedom you can use ‘prefer not to say’ as an option.
Facebook provides more than 50 custom gender identifiers and the user is free to type in not just one gender identity, but multiple. They also select their preferred pronoun.
We all have this assumption that the person we are addressing will be a gender which we are already familiar with and end up using default pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘his’, ‘her’. We are biased. The alternative which we can use to avoid this exclusion is definitely by relying upon the pronoun ‘they’ or ‘theirs’. It’s easier, it’s faster. Recently Instagram adopted this method.
Develop a gender-neutral vision
People usually love a brand based on how well they can connect with them. If they feel the product is not considering them or if they get a feeling that this is ‘not for us’ then the business will lose a group of users. To help yourself implement a gender-neutral vision for a brand or digital product experience:
- Images & icons: Use gender-neutral characters in photos and illustrations, meaning they need not be necessarily male or female. If using icons to represent sex, make sure that you fully understand the meaning of the icons.
- Colors & Typography: Don’t promote stereotyping of gender by using specific colors or typography. For eg: Try avoiding blue (considered as masculine), pink (feminine) and instead include monochromatic grays, browns, black, white & yellows which are considered more neutral. In the case of typography, feminine fonts tend to be smooth, curved, flowing & rounded while masculine fonts have straight lines, strong serifs and thick strokes. The most popular gender-neutral typeface of all time is Helvetica due to its classic look and simple style.
And it’s all on you! You might be a homophobic or a transphobic person, but if you are a designer by profession then you should have the heart to accept & consider all diversities. As a designer, you have the power to influence users. One of the keys to unlock this power is to use inclusive design and that includes gender inclusiveness as well. Next time you design a signup form or a user profile, be liberal, empathize and make a decision because your design can influence a lot of people to bring a change.