The gender of the user does not matter. Period. – Marcus Lyra


Beyond a system that struggles to frame all, think of a system that does not frame at all.

Before you get started with a project that takes gender under consideration, stop and question yourself with honesty: What are you using this information for? And, in case you still consider using this information, I have two bad news to share: 1st. It would surprise you the overall uselessness of this register and 2nd, gender, as an amalgamation of social functions, is something much more complex than a column on a spreadsheet within the database.

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Sex and gender

First things first: Sex is biological. It comprises the physical characteristics of individuals, that is, the presence of a certain sexual organ, hormones, specific organs such as the Uterus, mammary glands, testicles, and some further general anatomical dispositions. As far as sex is concerned, there are male and female (and rarer cases of intersexuality). What follows is quite simple: This question cannot be a concern of any application, website or service. There are only few exceptions, such as apps for medical purposes, labs or hospitals, where knowing whether the patient is male or female directly interferes on dosages and even diagnostics.

When we ask about users’ sex, in fact, what we are looking for is their gender, and the social role this person plays. Gender is something completely different from sex and does not have any biological or reproductive function. It amounts to a composite of attitudes, conducts and customs that are taught since early so that people become “man” or “woman”; and, you know, if something has to be taught, it is because it is not natural. For instance, we are not taught to be male or female — albeit it would not even work, considering that the physical dispositions of the body would not be altered anyway — but we teach how to behave as a man or a woman within the standards of a certain culture; and the differences are huge. The expectations of what is a “man” in Siberia are not the same ones than what is to be a man in New York.

Quick-stop on “Gender Ideology”

Illustrations by Tom Peake

It is bogus. Final. In fact, ‘now that was invented, it exists’, therefore, we must address it; but it lacks all scientific basic grounds. The origin of the term is religious: dating from 1997, from the book titled “ The Gender Agenda” by Dale O’Leary, the term found its final materialization by the hands of no one less than the (self-resigned) Pope Joseph Ratzinger. His book, named “ The Salt of the Earth” is also from 1997. Ratzinger attempts to claim that the conception of gender goes against the supposed divine nature of the sexes, and that we, humans, have the sole purpose of procreation. However, this conception is deeply flawed, once the relation between sex and pregnancy is a knowledge that only human beings appear to have, as well demonstrated by many scientists, such as Holly Dunsworth, in works published on Nature and Scientific American.

Well, let us return

During the process of development of a system, there is an even deeper concern that obliges us to thoroughly consider the real reasons for such distinctions. These reasons, in general, are closely connected to the habit of data collection as a sign of information, which in the end, end up unused and mess up with the communicative process.

Therefore, stop with the gender questionnaires.

And not asking the gender leads to a real lack of information? Well, not apparently. Big behavioral research centers — such as Microsoft Design— base more of the incremental work on ‘conditions of use’ that the user endure, rather than ‘stereotypes of users’, so widespread, commonly sustained by the creation of “personas” as we see on UX development processes all around. There is a simple concept underneath this idea: the behavior of the user is the only thing that truly matters.

And for those who insist that gender (man or woman) defines behavior, let us invert the logic for a brief moment: Behavior defines gender. It will be clear enough then, that to develop a behavior-focused creative process may render a much wider set of data, and more importantly, a much more adequate intel on how people use the system. How? Work with categories of users based upon types or conditions of behavior, so that their genders, even their religious beliefs will become happy coincidences.

Pragmatizing it

Illustrations by Tom Peake

Let us consider that the executive direction of the project still insist on registering the information regarding gender or sex, take note:

  1. Worst Case: If your system questions gender or sex, it must include a free space for personal descriptions; never a list of preset possibilites. Whether you are fully open to register every possibility of personal identification (I mean all the letters of the LGBTQIA+ and more), or you do better not registering any. Never limit the input options to the ones the system’s programmers are open to receive only. This is a way of systematically imposing one specific discourse about oneself and not listening to what people really are.

Use an open field.

2. Better one: Try never to ask during the registering process. Gender must never become a condition for enrolment. Let us imagine, for instance, asking the religion of people with radial buttons during the register; outrageous, isn’t it? So, it is worth reconsidering some development habits on data collection. Generally, the milder form of gathering information would be with posterior engagements. A good example would be asking the user on the profile “How can we call you?: (1) Mr, (2) Mrs, (3) Ms or (4) Miss.

3. Just perfect: Again, a reminder is necessary: in case you will never use this information to the benefit of the users, never ask it. After all, why would you want to know the gender of the users in a University? A bank website? Wi-fi registration? Email account? Or any other application, really?

What really matters are behaviors, and data read through them may or may not reflect patterns that can indicate cultural constellations, that can ultimately provide valuable insights in quantitative research methods. In this sense, it is noteworthy that in statistics, gender can become a false positive, in other words, it comprises information that suggests to justify a behavior, whereas the behavior justifies the gender, and much more. One does not eat more for being a man or a woman; the only thing is that some eat more or eat less and being man or woman implies nothing. Systematically, it is feasible to determine whether a user is more prone to eat a lot or not regarding other more meaningful behavioral data.

The only thing that matters is the behavior

In the practical sense, 99% of the applications (medical purposes excluded) are not rigorously oriented towards one or the other sex as opposed biological organisms. They are not apps for male or female, but for men or women, or anyone who attends to these social conducts and spaces. This happens because the design of these applications is not determined by organic issues such as hormones — so intimately related to biological sex — but social functions, routines, psych-cognitive difficulties, commitments and so on. These are the practicalities that apps are faced with.

To frame every user into two descriptive categories of gender has no function. It is also important to highlight that, while working with minorities, it might become relevant to cite their identities, but nevertheless, through words and signs that they themselves provide. But this issue goes well beyond the current scope and we can save it for later.

To sum up:

Illustrations by Tom Peake

First step: Do not ask about biological sex (male or female) if the differences of these organisms are not specifically involved on the functions provided by your application.

Second step: Never ask it during registration. What the person is, should never become selection criteria; whatever it be, color, nationality, religion or gender.

Do not open the breach of categorization with questionnaires, it only reinforces prejudices and stereotypes from the mind of the company that created it.

According to a peer research published by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, only 48 percent of the generation Z identify themselves exclusively as heterosexual, compared with 65 percent of Millennials (from 21 to 34 years old). Fifty-five percent of the interviewed, from 13 to 20 years old, claimed to know someone who identify themselves with neutral gender pronouns as “they” and “them”.

Even in Brazil — a country where companies still grapple with these issues — some things are slowly changing. The company called Diversity Box, a specialist on inclusion management, claims to receive on average 10 new clients per week. [Estadão]

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