Asking about gender on online forms

So you're creating an online form.  If it's longer than the standard email-and-zip-code signup form, you've probably got a gender question.  Here's how to make that gender question inclusive.

First, some bad examples.

What's wrong with these?  They all assume that gender is binary, that people only come in two genders, which simply isn't true.  The second one presents "transgender" as a category of gender distinct from "male" and "female", which also isn't accurate.  Further, the second and third ones present trans people as a secondary class.  Trans women are women, no less so than cisgender women are, and trans men are men, no less so than cisgender men are.

Before we talk about what "doing it right" looks like, first we need to clarify why we're asking about gender.  When we ask about gender on online forms, we might have a lot of different reasons to ask.  Let's ask the question or questions that meet our particular needs, and let's ask in ways that show our audiences that we respect and understand them.

Do we want to learn what to call people?  Are we asking about pronouns?  Great, let's ask about pronouns!

We want to refer to people with their correct pronouns in the same way that we want to refer to people with their correct names.  Note that correct pronouns are the ones chosen by each individual.  We all have the right to decide what names and pronouns we want others to use for us.

Overall, whether you're asking on a form or in person, the best way to ask for someone's pronouns is with the same breezy politeness with which you'd ask someone for their name.  You simply want to know what to call them!

Label the question simply "Pronouns".  The phrase "preferred gender pronouns" is common in many progressive spaces, and while it may serve to more clearly describe what's being asked to cis people who may never have thought of this before, it can also unfairly mark trans people as a special class with unusual needs.  The fact is, everyone, of every gender, has a preference for what pronouns others use to refer to them.  We want to honor that equally for everyone.

Here is how we recommend asking about pronouns. Use either the open fill-in-the-blank or the check-multiple option depending on your data analysis needs.

The explanation text is important because many cisgender people may not have considered that pronouns are a matter of identity and not just a given based on the gender a doctor assigned to them at birth.  This helps make the form more accessible to the cis people in your audience.

Where possible, set the check-multiple-options field to shuffle the order in which the options are displayed to avoid the appearance of hierarchy.  If you find that many of your users are filling in the blank with the same thing not offered as a checkbox option, consider offering that as an additional checkbox option on future forms.

Always, always, always include a fill-in-the-blank space.  Language about gender is evolving quickly.  We're asking about pronouns because we want to understand how to refer to people, because we want to show people respect and acceptance.  Respect sometimes requires going beyond a checklist of options we're familiar with.

If you're concerned that using "they" to refer to an individual is grammatically incorrect, I invite you to prioritize the needs of human beings to feel seen and respected over the needs of a dictionary to remain accurate over decades.  Again, language evolves all the time.  We can make room for everyone.

It's also important to clarify on the form how this information will be used.  If you're collecting registration information for an event, and pronoun data will be printed on participants' badges, say so!  If you're collecting data about a new hire and will be sharing their name, pronouns, and other biographical details with your existing staff, say so.  Context like this helps everyone choose how to share information about themselves.  Some people may use different pronouns in different contexts as a safety measure in a transphobic world, and it's important to give folks the information they need to make choices that affect their safety.

Do we want to understand the demographics of our audience?  Great, let's ask about identity!

We ask about demographics for a wide variety of reasons.  As you're building your form, think about your particular needs.  How large a group will you be collecting data on?  Will the data come in all at once, or on an ongoing basis over months or even years?  What capacity will your team have to manage and analyze the data?  These considerations will influence whether a single fill-in-the-blank field or a check-multiple-options field is best for your use case.

And most importantly, how will you use the data?  Will responses determine the availability volume of particular gendered resources (such as bathrooms or locker rooms) at an event?  Will responses influence future programming, and how?  Will you issue reports that include gender demographics?

How you plan to use the data will also influence whether a single fill-in-the-blank field or a check-multiple-options field is best for your use case.  And again, share this context with your participants on the form itself, so that everyone can make an informed choice about how to share details about themselves.

Here is how we recommend asking about gender, again offering two variants, fill-in-the-blank and check-multiple-options, to be selected from depending on your data analysis needs.

Again, where possible, set the check-multiple-options field to shuffle the order in which the options are displayed to avoid the appearance of hierarchy.

Make sure that the form allows every user to check as many options as they need.  The ability to check multiple options is important for many people.  Our goal in asking about gender is to understand how our audience identifies, so we ask in ways that enable people to accurately reflect their identities.

Note that options like "trans man" or "trans woman" aren't there.  This is because trans men are men, and deserve the opportunity to select man, and because trans women are women, and deserve the opportunity to select woman.  This form gives trans people the opportunity to additionally note that they're trans if they want to do so, without the othering that's inherent in a separate category.

Avoid using the word "other" to identify a fill-in-the-blank question wherever possible.  Systemic oppression makes trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and queer people feel out of place, abnormal, "other" constantly.  "Something else" acknowledges the opportunity to contribute information not available on the list, without the value judgment.  Note that Google Forms unfortunately doesn't allow alternates to the "other" label.  Talk to your CRM's account manager if you're unsure how to change the "other" label to "something else" in your system.

Two Spirit is an English term that some Native Americans use to express identities that go beyond binary gender.  Many words exist in Native languages to express specific identities.  Here's more on what Two Spirit means, and on why it's never appropriate for non-Native people to use this as their own identity word.  To leave out Two Spirit is to assume that Native Americans aren't among our audiences.  Always include Two Spirit, and always include these two links to give necessary context for those unfamiliar with the term.

What else might we be asking when we ask about gender?

Sometimes, when we ask about gender, we're curious about what people's bodies look like.  Sometimes we want to know what gender the government considers a person to be, legally speaking.

These things are absolutely none of anyone's business in nearly all cases.

Are you a medical professional providing treatment that involves gendered body parts?  Then you have reason to know what body parts a person has and what names they use to refer to those parts of their body.  Otherwise, no.  Best practices for asking about people's body parts are beyond the scope of Practice Makes Progress, because those questions are beyond the scope of progressive organizing workplaces.

Does federal, state, or local law require you to know someone's legal gender?  Ask only in cases where it's absolutely necessary, and be prepared to receive that information without judgment and keep it secure.  For example, organizations' HR departments may be required to gain legal gender marker information about employees, contractors, or other individuals with legal relationships with the organization, or logistics departments may require legal gender marker information in order to book flights.  When asking this information, make clear why it's necessary, who will have access to the information, and what steps will be taken to ensure the privacy of the information.

Sometimes an individual's pronouns or identity words about their gender won't "match" their legal gender marker, and that's ok.  Understand that processes to change one's legal gender vary widely by state law.  Some states require individuals to undergo sterilizing surgery in order to change their legal gender marker, and many requirements are invasive and cost-prohibitive even among states that require no surgery.  Many individuals choose to wait a while before changing their legal gender marker, or choose never to make that change, for any number of reasons that are private to them.  No U.S. jurisdiction currently allows any gender marker other than male or female, which makes it impossible for non-binary people to have legal documents that reflect their gender accurately.

Importantly, understand the risks that many trans people face when cis people learn that they're trans.  Bias against transgender people in the United States is often extremely harsh, and trans people experience very high rates of violence and discrimination.  Working to be more inclusive in how we ask about gender and how we protect the privacy of this information is a small but important part of working to end endemic discrimination against trans people.

Closing thoughts

When we ask questions about gender on online forms, we want to honor the identities of everyone in our audience, gain the information we need in ways that show respect and understanding, and work to dismantle systems that make life harder for transgender and gender non-conforming people.

When we ask about gender on online forms, sometimes we're asking about gender identity, and sometimes we want to know what pronouns to use to refer to someone.  We can't assume what pronouns someone uses based on their gender, because two people of the same gender might use different sets of pronouns.  Always consider what particular information you need to know, and ask about gender and pronouns separately.

As a reminder, always be transparent with people about why you're asking for personal information like gender, how you plan to use the information, and whether and how you might share the information.  This is a time for your online privacy policy to shine!  Check in with your organization's lawyer to make sure your online privacy policy is up to date, and link to it on your forms.

Practice Makes Progress will update this post as understanding and language about gender evolves.  Please contact us at info@practicemakesprogress.org if you have information to share!