Tag Archives: gender

A critique of Facebook’s gender diversity

Facebook announced today they will now “offer an extensive list of gender identities” for users to declare in their profiles, as well as allow users to choose between masculine, feminine and neutral pronouns for the site to use when referring to them.

Below is a summary of the changes as well as a brief critique that’s (spoiler alert!) not entirely positive.

How it works

(NB: For this to work you MUST set your language to ‘English US’. I have no idea why this is a limitation or if it will eventually be available for other language settings.)

New gender options

When you go to edit your ‘Basic Information’ you now have a ‘Custom’ option in the Gender drop down menu. If you choose this, typing in the text area brings up some of the options available to choose. One of the actually pretty cool parts of this is that you can choose multiple options!


You can then select a chosen set of pronouns and decide who can see your declared gender on the site.

List of options

I haven’t found an official list anywhere. Reports keep stating there are 50 but below is list of 56 I have seen myself today. It may be incomplete and may change without notice.

Agender Androgyne Androgynous
Bigender Cis Cis Female
Cis Male Cis Man Cis Woman
Cisgender Cisgender Female Cisgender Male
Cisgender Man Cisgender Woman Female to Male
FTM Gender Fluid Gender nonconforming
Gender Questioning Gender Variant Genderqueer
Intersex Male to Female MTF
Neither Neutrois Non-binary
Other Pangender Trans
Trans Female Trans Male Trans Man
Trans Person Trans Woman Trans*
Trans* Female Trans* Male Trans* Man
Trans* Person Trans* Woman Transfeminine
Transgender Transgender Female Transgender Male
Transgender Man Transgender Person Transgender Woman
Transmasculine Transsexual Transsexual Female
Transsexual Male Transsexual Man Transsexual Person
Transsexual Woman Two-spirit

One interesting observation is that, though you can choose multiple options, ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ are not on this custom list so it is impossible to be, say, simultaneously ‘Female’ and ‘Gender Questioning’.

Misleading privacy settings

The announcement post states

We also have added the ability for people to control the audience with whom they want to share their custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way.

Ideally, and in order to comply with this statement, Facebook should use gender neutral terminology to refer to other users when you don’t have access to their stated gender information. However, this has been messily implemented.

Early on Google+ had an issue where you could hide your gender status from your profile but it would still publicly use the corresponding gendered pronouns to refer to you. They changed this fairly quickly following a non-negligible user response. (I wrote about it here.)

Facebook appears to have implemented something similar to Google+’s initial problematic system of access. To explain, I chose Female pronouns and locked the privacy for this field to ‘Only Me’.

Privacy Limitations

The first issue is that Facebook has conflated chosen gendered pronouns with the default masculine/feminine silhouette user image so if, like I have done above, you hide your specified gender from others they can still see a (heavily stereotypical) visual representation of your choice, providing you haven’t uploaded another user image that they have access to.

To reiterate: Facebook still conflates gender with gendered pronouns through visual stereotype representation. (And ‘Neutral’ pronouns still default to the masculine silhouette.) But let’s move on.

Additionally, the system still uses these chosen gendered pronouns to refer to you publicly within the system. It appears such instances are far fewer than they once were (the system language appears to actively avoid pronouns where possible), but in cases where, say, I reply to a friend’s status and, despite not having access to my stated gender/sex, the title of the email notification they receive is something like “Anne Drogyne also commented on her status.”

Facebook actually mentions that your preferred pronoun is public (the fine print at the bottom of the above image) but is not clear as to what this means. The link doesn’t actually clarify anything.

To explain why this is an issue I’ll give a quick example.

Jack identifies as female but is not out to her family who believe she is male. Jack appreciates Facebook’s new flexibility and chooses custom gender and chooses a few options she is comfortable with but, fearing possible family drama, makes this selection only visible to friends. Jack chooses to be referred to using female pronouns and appreciates this new sense of freedom.

However, Jack’s mother soon sees a notification using female pronouns and, thinking it’s just a joke, mentions it to Jack who, horrified about the accidental reveal, changes her pronouns back to male in an attempt to avoid being ‘outed’.

Okay, so this example relies on the fact that these privacy settings are perhaps a little misleading. And I argue that Google+ has implemented this better by referring to everything using gender neutral pronouns if you don’t have access to that information. But if Jack was aware of this limitation the situation is not that much better; it now presents a space of gender/sex performativity where pronoun use must be universal for all viewing your interactions. Jack cannot choose to be referred to using female pronouns among friends without everyone being privvy to that choice. Jack may use male or neutral pronouns, though the latter option may prompt probing questions that are better avoided.

So Facebook remains yet another uncomfortable social space with jarring language. I don’t believe this choice is diversity friendly at all, and it clashes with Facebook Diversity’s assertion above that “We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way”. You have more options, yes, but you’re either out to everyone or forced to perform your identity inauthentically.

Is this progress?

Yes? But also very much no?

Concerns raised in the previous section aside, on the one hand this is clearly a positive change when compared to the previous (though it should be pointed out still current for all other languages) system that enforced a binary gender/sex status that corresponded with a similar binary pronoun system. Users now have more control over what their profile says and how the system refers to them. Facebook has finally made a move to recognise diversity within their system. This is great!

Having said that, it’s still a system with limited options. For anyone who doesn’t feel one or more of the 58+ (56 plus Female and Male) options accurately represents who they are, they have now become further marginalised by this common software developer desire to sort populations into neat categories for data analysis.

Gender options are not finite. Even the concept of gender itself varies between persons.

Why can’t this be a non-mandatory field? Why is it even asked for in the first place? Facebook justify this in various ways, to various levels of legitimacy, but other social network platforms get by without it (Twitter, tumblr) or allow much more freedom of expression through the use of a text field (diaspora*). And Facebook has gradually been removing or rewording system notifications that previously used pronouns (at least in the English language version of the site) so its mandatory status is becoming less and less justified.

I strongly believe everyone should be free to perform any and all aspects of their identity on social media in any way they wish. If these changes by Facebook work for you I think that’s great. The problem is that gender/sex identity is both a very important and very contentious aspect of identity and here we see Facebook allowing more flexibility (good) while stubbornly retaining control over the ‘approved’ method of gender performance within their system and continuing to reinforce various notions of gender/sex normativity (bad). Any gender performance conducted using these new features (or the old ones which the rest of the world is still stuck with) happens in relation to the strict, albeit now much looser, concept of gender and sex as defined by Facebook.

(I’ve written about this many times previously. More details in the tags. But one big glaring example is that ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ are not actually ‘genders’.)

I think it’s great that many have found these changes to be positive ones. I just have concerns that now many gender diverse users are now slightly better catered for, some of the broader issues around Silicon Valley’s tendency to limit expression through categorisation will now be more difficult to raise.

Gender expression is important, and the level to which it is important varies between persons. Many will embrace these new options and find them useful in performing their identity. But, if the idea of Facebook defining the rules and limitations of gender makes you uncomfortable, I still strongly recommend considering opting out of this field altogether and choosing your own method and level of identity performance through all other instances of interaction with Facebook and other social network platforms.

Opting out

Though Facebook don’t directly let you, it is still possible to set your gender/sex field to ‘unspecified’. (See my previous post for details and instructions.) This forces the system to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to you and removes mention of your gender/sex from your profile. (This is why the first image in this post leads with the ‘Select Gender’ option – I previously had nothing selected.)

It also appears you may be able to set your language to US English, set your gender to ‘Custom’ and pronouns to ‘Neutral’, and then set your language back to something else and have your gender set itself to ‘Unspecified’, but I haven’t tested this thoroughly.

Reinstating the third gender/sex option on Facebook

I received two copies of the Unlike Us reader in the post yesterday and I’ve started reading some of the other contributions. I highly recommend checking it out. (Reminder: it’s free to download!) But somehow, even seeing my name in print didn’t prepare me for the possibility that someone else might actually read let alone enjoy my essay. (Did I think it’d just sit there, unread, and that’d be cool? Maybe.)

Anyway, I woke up to Tweets from Marc Stumpel this morning, linking to some creative responses to Facebook’s limited gender/sex representation that I hadn’t come across before. Of particular interest is a ‘Facebook Gender Neutrality‘ script, written by Alec Wright, that apparently enables Facebook users to revert back to the ‘other/undisclosed’ gender/sex option that was made unavailable since around 2008.

I had previously seen scripts that change the display of user information in some way (use gender neutral phrasing on Facebook, for example, or even reverse gender/sex terms in all websites), but these only worked locally on the browsers where the script was installed. In this case, However, Alec states, “this is what everyone will see, and not just you”.

I decided I had to try it out. Immediately.

Using a new Firefox browser profile (so I could confirm it works without any scripts installed) I went to Alec’s ‘Facebook Gender Neutrality‘ page and installed Greasemonkey (a popular add-on many may have installed already) and after restarting the browser installed the .js script linked to from Alec’s page. As I understand it, all the script does is add an ’Other/Undisclosed’ radio button to the mobile page where you change your gender/sex status, and this actually alters your account. Incredibly simple, but absolutely brilliant!

Mobile Facebook screen with Alec Wright's 'Facebook Gender Neutrality' script installed

Some quick background info and clarification: Facebook does have an ‘Undisclosed’ option for gender/sex; they just don’t make it selectable. This is from back when it wasn’t mandatory to declare whether you are either male or female. Not all users chose either ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ when they were asked to so you may occasionally see gender neutral terms ‘they’ or ‘their’ on Facebook – though this is becoming rare. So, Facebook’s gender/sex field is not stored as a binary value (either 0 or 1, corresponding to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’); rather, there are three possibilities:

  • 0 is ‘Undisclosed’1
  • 1 is ‘Female’2
  • 2 is ‘Male’

Put simply, Alec’s script makes it possible to select 0 again. And this is why the selection becomes visible to everyone.

After running the script on one of my testing accounts (Anne Drogyne) in a new Firefox profile, I created a new testing account (Funkmaster Jay) using my main Firefox profile and made them become friends. (It’s like playing The Sims!) Below is a screenshot taken from a Firefox profile that has not installed any of Alec’s scripts.

Screenshot of a Facebook timeline that uses gender neutral terminology

As you can see, the gender neutral term ‘their’ is used in the timeline. I haven’t looked much further but I have no reason to suspect this does not work universally for that account.

Finally, I should note that I don’t believe this fix is perfect. But it would be much, much harder to make more meaningful changes on Facebook such as making gender/sex a text field, removing gender/sex status altogether, or even altering system phrases to remove the ‘need’ for gendered terminology at all. However, all of that is close to impossible for non-Facebook developers. Reinstating the ‘Undisclosed’ option to users, especially as these choices become visible to all users, is perhaps the best we can do. Using only a few lines of JavaScript, I think Alec has done some amazing work.

So, to summarise, if you don’t like Facebook’s way of representing you in relation to a gender/sex binary, DO THIS! If you’re actually okay with being either male or female on Facebook but still think this is an option that should be available, TELL EVERYONE YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS!

Lastly, if you appreciate this script and what is means socially, email Alec and say so – it’s always nice to get feedback =) Alec’s email address is described cryptically at the bottom of this page, but it’s also written at the top of the .js script file if you open it in a text editor.

I’m composing an email right now.

1. I say that Facebook treats ‘not male or female’ as ‘undisclosed’ rather than ‘other’ because, well, the system design does not allow for ‘other’ as an option – options are interpreted as either ‘Male’, ‘Female’, or ‘I haven’t told you yet’. In short, Facebook as a system subscribes to and reinforces the binary theory of gender/sex. Of course, this doesn’t mean users can’t choose this third option as a way to present as ‘other’ – gender/sex performance can be interpreted in many ways the system didn’t intend, depending on the community/culture. I think Alec’s ‘Other/Undisclosed’ wording is correct here, but I just wanted to be clear about my own, more restricted terminology when referring to Facebook itself.

2. Interesting to note, this is one of the very few times I’ve encountered a system where a gender/sex field doesn’t list ‘Male’ before ‘Female’ (even though it’s alphabetically backwards) in coded representation.

I’m published! – Unlike Us Reader out now

I got notification this morning that the new Unlike Us reader is now available. My essay, ‘None of Your Business? Analyzing the Legitimacy and Effects of Gendering Social Spaces Through System Design’ appears on pages 200-219.

You can read the release announcement at the networkcultures.org site here. The short trailer for the reader is also available on vimeo.

There are multiple ways you can get a copy of the reader. If you go to this page you can read it online using issuu. (It should be noted, however, that if you try to download it on the issuu site it requires you to register, and registration requires you to choose your gender as being either ‘male’ or ‘female’, displaying a perfect example of what I argue is a terrible practice in my essay. Needless to say, I don’t recommend downloading it through issuu!) You can also read and download it through scribd without having to register, or download it directly from the networkcultures.org site.

Of course, as the reader is shared using the CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license, I can host it on my own server, too! (This is especially convenient because it appears the networkcultures.org site is currently down.) However, if you only want to download my essay, I’ve also uploaded an edited (remixed!) version that cuts out most of the other pages. Links to both versions are below.

Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives (3.9MB .pdf)

Andrew McNicol – None of Your Business?: Analyzing the Legitimacy and Effects of Gendering Social Spaces Through System Design (622kB .pdf)

Special thanks to Miriam Rasch and Geert Lovink who have done an amazing job with this release. I’m looking forward to checking out some of the other contributions once I get some free time.

Please share with anyone you think may be interested. And please feel free to comment or email with any constructive feedback you may have – I haven’t read through this in months, but I think there are a few sections I would change slightly.

Preliminary thoughts: making recommendations regarding sex status for the 2016 census

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been planning for our 2016 census for a while now. Recently they announced information sessions relating to changes that might appear in the 2016 census because they want submissions from organisations and individuals containing feedback and recommendations. Having a strong research interest in the representation of persons I wanted to write a submission of my own, specifically addressing some of the issues relating to the representation of sex. Even if it doesn’t lead to changes in the next census, any submission of mine will be accessible to them during any future conversations.

While I’m not too optimistic anything will change, as there are many interested parties relying on the field staying exactly the same for easy comparison with previous years’ results, there is a real possibility I can make some difference. It also feels a little overwhelming planning to write a formal report to government based on my PhD research, so I may be asking various people for advice before May next year, when submissions close.

The following is a brief outline of some of the concerns I want to include. I’d love any feedback you might have, and if you know of anyone with an interest in this topic (you probably do!) I’d appreciate you forwarding the link to them =)

Reviewing the sex standard

The ABS have begun to review its sex standard. My understanding is that this is a separate project to the 2016 census, but will inform its practices. They state

This standard provides a basis for the ABS to collect statistics relating to people but also provides a standard for other organisations to collect data about sex in surveys and administrative collections. (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012)

I think this is an important move! Not only will it mean the category will be consistent across all ABS data (they do more than just the census), but its intention for use within other organisations, if widely adopted, will make data comparisons more accurate.

However, this makes it a lot more important for the ABS to get it right – a difficult project with so many stakeholders involved.

The current standard

Details can be read here. To summarise, the ABS acknowledge a trend in substituting ‘gender’ for ‘sex’, but discourage that practice because they believe they are different terms.

Sex refers to a person’s biological sex and associated physical characteristics. Gender refers to the way a person self identifies and presents them self to the community, such as their name, outward appearance, mannerisms, and dress. A person’s sex is not necessarily consistent with their gender. (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012)

The ABS currently define sex the following ways:

5. Sex is defined as the biological distinction between male and female. Where there is an inconsistency between anatomical and chromosomal characteristics, sex is based on anatomical characteristics. (‘Underlying concepts‘, 28 March 2006)


8. Physical biology is the criterion used to classify persons into the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’. This criterion is physical rather than genetic to cover the exceptional cases such as sex change operations. In the vast majority of cases the physical and genetic categories are identical. (‘Classification and coding‘, 28 March 2006)

So, in short, sex is always defined as a biological attribute, except in those cases where it is defined as a physical one.

While I partly wrote the previous sentence as a joke, I do see the justification for this definition. The problem is, however, that this complex set of ‘exceptional cases such as sex change operations’ is not clearly defined. At what stage of sexual reassignment would a person qualify as one sex and not the other? Which of the many conditions that might blur someone’s sex status count them as female or male based on their physical attributes as opposed to biological ones? What conditions of self-identification, if any, qualify a person to legitimately categorise themselves as the sex they identify with under this system?

This presents a problem with this definition of sex being used as a standard. But not only is the demarcation unclear; any standard demarcation presents a problem for practical use as different studies of populations are usually after any one of a number of understandings of sex or gender. For example, the ABS state ‘gender is frequently used (for example in psychological or sociological discussions) to refer to cultural or social differences as opposed to biological ones’ (‘Underlying concepts‘, 28 March 2006). In such cases, it would be preferable for sex to be defined as relating to identity and lived experience rather than strict biological status. However, sociologically useful definitions such as this would be problematic for medical studies looking at, say, the prevalence of diseases or conditions compared to chromosomal sex.

I’m still thinking this all through, but my current understanding is that census and other ABS data tend to be used mostly for studies of populations and this leads me to believe a sociological definition would be the most appropriate option for them to adopt. This will certainly present a problem for any statistical data being used for studies that require a strict biological definition of sex, of course. Perhaps one solution would be to propose two separate definitions of sex, and for the ABS to adopt one of them for use across all their statistical projects as the default. (I return to this discussion below.)


Sex status is digitised using the following coding:

0 Not stated/Inadequately described
1 Male
2 Female

They add

If it is necessary to include the category ‘Intersex or Indeterminate’, it should be allocated the code ’3′. (‘Classification and coding‘, 28 March 2006).

However, clarifying how sex data is collected in the census, the ABS write

There is no non-response for the Sex (SEXP) data item because missing values are imputed. If a form was received but there was no response to the question, Sex was imputed using other information on the form, such as name, relationship or number of children. If this process was not successful then sex was allocated randomly. Clerical intervention during processing was also required where both Male and Female responses were marked. These various types of imputations occurred for 2.2% of all persons. (‘Sex (SEXP)‘, 24 October 2012)

This explains that census data does not use the zero code – it is strictly a binary field where deviation or non-completion of the field is responded to with an assumed or random assignment of code 1 or 2. (This is the first time I’ve been able to confirm Organisation Intersex International Australia’s claim about random assignment.) Other problems aside, this actually means that the census is not actually complying with its publicised standard for sex. Any non-response or non-standard response to this questions should, by their own rules, be counted as ’0 Not stated/Inadequately described’, not assigned to one of the other options as they see fit. What is the point of the standard if it is used inconsistently?

Imputed or random assignment?

One other issue I have with the practice described in the above quote is the use of the word ‘impute’ to describe sexual assignment. It is one thing for the record of a person who elsewhere describes their relationship to another person as a ‘father’ to be assigned ‘male’, but an entirely different situation for another person to be assigned ‘male’ because their name is, say, ‘John’. From the description I think it’s safe to assume both fall under ABS’s practice of ‘imputing’. My problem is that the word suggests more of a logical calculation (such as determining a person’s age based on their birth date) than a assumption based on social experiences.

This may seem like an insignificant distinction, but i feel it’s actually important to be clear about the potentially flawed assumptions at play here, and another word may be more appropriate.


Perhaps my biggest concern about sex status on the census, and all forms in general really, is the issue of clarity. It is rarely clear what is being asked so the respondent is left to make their own assumptions. I also feel the Australian census deals with this issue rather poorly. Various parts of the ABS documentation talk about the tendency for people to conflate the terms gender and sex and the confusion this leads to, and they conclude it is important to be clear about the standard in order to make it consistent across various surveys and collections. This is an admirable theoretical stance to take, but their execution of this does not appear consistent with their aim when the distinction is not even mentioned.

Screenshot of the 2011 census form asking 'Is the person male or female?'

The above image is all we are presented with. There is no occurrence of the word ‘sex’ anywhere on the form. (‘Female’ and ‘male’ are sex terms, not gendered terms, but I suspect the vast majority of people aren’t certain about this.) If you would like a clarification of the question (‘I’m female bodied but have presented as a male for the past fifteen years. What response are they looking for here?’) you would need to go to their website and hope you can make sense of the documentation – the same documentation that I’ve been looking closely through for the past few weeks and still feel a little confused about. The last time the question was helpfully labeled ‘Sex’ was back in 1991.

The ABS test the wording and presentation of new questions on real people before incorporating them into the census, so apparently nobody tested was confused enough by the question as presented to warrant a revision. However, I think this depends heavily on the people being tested.

If there was just one improvement I would like to see (partly because it’s so simple that it actually has a chance of being incorporated) would be for the census to replace the question ‘Is the person male or female?’ with something like ‘What is the biological sex of the person?’. This would of course open them up to complications where some citizens are supposed to declare their physical sex (see discussion above), but at least the question makes sense to the general population who are regularly exposed to inconsistent use of terms related to sex and gender. (Thanks a lot, Facebook et al.)

Including gender as an additional field

Part of the review of the sex standard looks at ‘whether there are grounds to develop a new gender standard to complement the revised sex standard’ (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012). A strong, initial response of mine is to think, ‘Really? Sex status is confusing and complicated enough here as it is and you’re wondering whether it’s a good idea to also ask respondents for their gender?’ However, I think that view may be a bit too critical.

First of all, there could actually be great social value to collecting such information. I’d love to see a breakdown of what genders the population of Australia identify as – even while I have difficulty working out how I personally feel about my own gender identity and would take forever to formulate a response of my own. Such questions could assist in highlighting gender diversity and, in turn, help individuals feel more comfortable about an identity that may traditionally be seen as ‘abnormal’. This could be great for research in the social sciences, too!

Of course, it’s difficult to envision a system that would be practical. First of all, there may be an urge to limit responses to a predefined set which may only serve to further alienate anyone who does not neatly fit within the available options (see: othering) and could never hope to encompass the vast diversity of gender identity (see: Yay genderform!).

The only way I could see it working in both a practical and socially responsible way is if gender was an optional, blank text field (see: ‘Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora‘, Sarah Mei, 26 November 2010). (Perhaps a brief note on the form about common responses might help transition the nation to this additional field, but it would need to be done delicately so as not to evoke a sense of othering in those who don’t identify with any of the examples.) Yes, the results would be a little chaotic, and some respondents would certainly write in ‘Jedi’, but I think for many studies of gender this chaos would actually be preferable and valuable.

It’s also important to note that including a gender field might actually serve as a solution to the problem of standards addressed earlier, where sociological and medical research both tend to require different interpretations of ‘sex status’. Sex status could be defined as biological and, while there would certainly still be problems with this limited notion, gender status could serve as a place to declare important information relating to your sex that has, until now, never been collected by the census (‘male identified intersex’*, ‘trans man’, etc.). The ABS, and other organisations who choose to adopt their standards, could choose which field (or both) to use when constructing surveys, depending on what sort of data they are looking to collect.

While interesting, this whole idea would likely not be adopted for the 2016 census without support from organisations who would use such data. I’ll need to talk to other researchers to try and, if they see it as a resource of potential value, rally some support and suggestions for my proposal. Of course, it’s also possible for me to recommend this as the standard for the ABS to adopt even if they don’t choose to use it within their census. My understanding is that the sex and gender standard is technically a separate project of theirs that simply informs the census. The formalisation of a standard with more flexibility of representation would be preferable even if its not present in the 2016 census.

Third sex category

Another option ABS has put on the table is to include a new ‘intersex or indeterminate’ category option for sex. Because of the problems of categorical sex assignment (it makes data inaccurate while simultaneously delegitimising experiences of, for example, intersex people by removing them from the official record of the country’s population) this may be something worth considering. However, including a ‘third sex’ option can introduce its own problems, as outlined by Gina Wilson from OII Australia.

I haven’t yet thought much about this ‘third sex’ problem, but I’ll certainly need to. If introduced, there needs to be a comfortable balance struck between being sensitive to all individuals completing such forms and collecting data that is most socially useful. I just don’t know where that balance might be yet.

Questioning the ‘essential’ nature of sex declaration

And it appears I’ve left one of the biggest questions for the end: why ask for a person’s sex status to begin with? To nicely frame one side of this discussion, I’d like to quote Gina Wilson who wrote

Indeed in an equal society there is no reason for sex designators to be included in the vast preponderance of documentation. The real necessity right now is only for census like information to be gathered so marginalized peoples can be identified and resources can be allocated.

If we were not the subject of discrimination and unfair treatment, only our lovers (and then not always) and our medical practitioner would have a legitimate reason to enquire about our sex parts.

The government and society needs to get their noses out of our underpants. (‘Gina Wilson writes on a third sex at Gay Star News‘, Gina Wilson, 13 July 2012)

Asserting an opposing view, the ABS states of its inclusion of the sex field that

Information gained from questions on sex is essential for the estimation of the resident population in each of the states, territories and local areas, which are required by legislation for electoral purposes and the distribution of government funds. (‘Topics – Recommended for Retention, 5 November 2012)

It’s difficult to assess ABS’s view that sex status is ‘essential’ from the documentation I have been looking at. There are vague references to ‘population estimates’, but I can’t see how sex status could inform such things unless by ‘population estimates’ you mean ‘population projections’ and you’re looking at populations of smaller towns and rural areas, which could actually produce information of public value. (Or if by ‘population estimates’ you simply mean ‘estimates of the current number of males and females’, which by definition it is integral to but we are now back where we began, wondering how such data could possibly be of use.) It also mentions it needs population data for reporting to COAG – but not what this is used for.

The best justification I have found is the statements that ‘[sex] is a core cross-tabulation for practically all social statistical topics such as employment, education, and health’ (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012), and that ‘[i]nformation on sex is essential for most socio-demographic analysis of Census data’ (‘Topics – Recommended for Retention, 5 November 2012). So, in short, sociological analyses and imposed government requirements in turn require sex information to be collected on the census, but there is no mention of why these external organisations want it. I don’t doubt there are reasons, and perhaps many good ones, but they are entirely hidden from the discussion behind the declaration that it is ‘essential’.

One issue I have with mandatory declaration here is that I suspect that government organisations (such as COAG, who the ABS actually state as an example) and sociological researchers all too easily fall back on treating biological sex as important field for ‘cross-tabulation’ because of tradition rather than questioning whether it is actually relevant in many of the situations it is introduced, and what the social implications of treating sex status with such importance might be. But without transparency regarding requests for its inclusion and retention, I just can’t participate in that conversation. (I can talk with people within the ABS about this, though. I’m only explaining how the data is not easy for us to access.)

In short, I largely side myself with the sentiment behind Gina Wilson’s quote above. However, I should be clear that I don’t entirely dismiss the idea that sex status can be a useful field within the census. (For example, I strongly support the ability for same sex couples to be counted in the census. This is a socially important demographic to publicise.) The important thing, I feel, is to question our deeply held assumptions about the importance of sex status and determine how, exactly, and if at all, it is actually benefiting us when we include it.

It should be a considered inclusion, not a habitual one.

Where to from here?

I have a lot of thesis writing to do in the near future which is not entirely related to this ABS submission, so it won’t be an easy task. I also feel a little intimidated by the idea of trying to submit a document to a government organisation that, if done correctly, could actually introduce a positive change. I’m definitely going to need some help on this, and to talk to others about it in order to receive occasional reminders that I’m not wasting my time. Now that I’ve written out some of my early ideas, doing a call out for people to talk to about this, to get advice, and to just generally talk it up would probably be the next step.

First, I might talk to some social sciences and gender studies researchers on campus to throw a few ideas at them. It’d be great to find people who will state that research would benefit from future census data, if some of my proposed recommendations are taken on board.

Actually, I’m attending the awgsa conference that’s being held on my campus this week, so this would be a good opportunity to ask some people I already know to recommend others to talk to during the event.

I will also get in touch with someone from OII Australia. My proposal would have a direct impact on intersex individuals so it would be kinda inappropriate for me to submit something without asking them for advice. Also, they have people who have already done some work looking into the census and other systems of population categorisations so their experience would be invaluable to this project – and my thesis research overall.

I’m also considering planning a semi-formal presentation/discussion at UNSW one evening if I find enough people are interested in this project. It’s not difficult to book a room; it’s just difficult to find a time people are available!

Lastly, but certainly not least, I need to get in touch with someone from the ABS who knows something about the history of conversations about sex status. I get the impression they’re very happy to have people meet with them to get clarification on things in order to prepare a submission, but I feel I should get some advice from others first so I’m more prepared. (Nevertheless, I can not leave this too long.)

Submissions are due by May 31 2013. By around that time I need to have completed drafts of four of my thesis chapters (out of six!). It’s going to be rough, but I also feel it’s important to get this done. Even if my recommendations are not incorporated into the 2016 census, I need to vocalise them so they will be available for reference in future discussions around possible revisions.

. . .

If you’ve made it this far through my post you’re no doubt thinking, ‘Yeah, this is really important and I wonder how I can help!’ Please, please feel free to get in touch with me. I’m more than happy to make some time to discuss many of the issues and concepts I’m quickly glancing over here, and that’s when I’m not currently working on a project relating to them.

If you have any thoughts or would simply like to read over a draft once I have something written, let me know. If you’d like to actually help draft the submission, definitely let me know. And if you disagree with something I’ve said here or have concerns about my approach, it’s probably most important that you get in touch with me (I like to think I respond quite well to criticism).

You can email me at andrew@exhipigeonist.net, or simply indicate that you’d like to have a discussion if you happen to see me around. And if you happen to know of anyone else who may be interested in this project, please forward them to this post.

In the mean time, I’ll likely post any updates here on my blog. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading =)

* A gender field may not appear to be the most appropriate place to declare intersex status, but it could be helpful here. And it sure beats writing it in as your religion.

Version control: In which Facebook makes improvements and my work suffers

In a paper I presented last year I discussed how hiding your sex/gender from your public Facebook profile didn’t actually remove the gendered language the system uses to refer to you. So, when leaving the box unselected, like so

'Hiding' sex status on Facebook

your public profile would still use sentences such as, “If you know Anne, add her as a friend or send her a message” (emphasis mine).

Facebook's gendered language

I see this as a concern for various reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere and I won’t go into them now. (Google+ also had a similar practice during its testing phase, which it changed fairly quickly after receiving a lot of user feedback. Frances Haugen from Google talks about the situation here, for anyone wanting a refresher.)

I mention this again this week because I’m in the process of finalising a paper which reviews gender and sex usage in social media systems and discusses potential social effects leading from these system design choices. It was going well and I had a great structure that appeared to work, but yesterday I went to check out Facebook’s system to confirm my statements and noticed that they appear to have addressed the above issue. Now, when looking at a person’s public profile, regardless of whether they’ve chosen to hide their declared gender/sex status, you see shorter sentences that avoid pronoun usage altogether.

Facebook system avoiding gendered pronouns

I think this is a great move! Eventually I’ll make time to look into other instances of this and evaluate how easily other systems can introduce similar changes (it’s difficult because I’m not that familiar with other languages/cultures). But for now I have to finish writing my paper. And this improvement throws a spanner into the works. (Or, rather, removes one that I was hoping to talk about a bit.)

I can work around it. I just need to do some work on changing the way I’ve structured everything. But it does raise one major difficulty I’ve been having throughout my research; that of being unable to easily record how the systems I discuss change over time when they are ‘closed’ systems.

Last year when Google Profiles allowed users to hide their gender status I kicked myself because I didn’t think to take a screenshot (a documented first-hand account that may constitute a better academic reference than a random person’s blog post) before it was changed – honestly, I didn’t think they’d fix it! I could keep taking regular screenshots of various interfaces, but that’s time consuming when I don’t actually know what I may want to focus on later. It’s what changes that becomes interesting, and I don’t have forewarning. In this case with Facebook removing gendered pronouns I actually have screenshots; what I don’t have is an idea about when, exactly, within the twelve months between my two screenshots these changes were actually made.

Couple this with the fact that some users see different iterations of a system interface, depending on their location or the server they’re using, documenting something accurately for later use can be quite difficult.

And this is one important (though small) reason I love open source software: I can find out which version is running on a particular server and then look through the code personally to document it accurately. This allows one to take a historical look at these services.

With all their talk about ‘transparency’, I wish Facebook and Google+ would take this direction. Just for me.

It would make my work a little easier.

Some important words for the holiday season

Here is a short but brilliant blog entry on Christmas.

It’s a made-up thing, it only exists because people believe in it. You can imagine that if you had been born into a culture that didn’t take any notice of Christmas, you could have lived a long and happy life and never even missed it.

But here in our culture, Christmas is a big deal. Even people who personally don’t find Christmas enjoyable or meaningful, even people who dislike it intensely, still get sucked into exchanging gifts and cards, going to Christmas parties and family Christmas dinners, and wishing “Merry Christmas” to friends, co-workers, and strangers on the street. In fact, for a person who was really determined to avoid Christmas, the only alternative would be to drop out of society altogether.

Gender is just like that.

Gender” from gethen blog.

Please share on whatever social networking sites kids are using these days =)

Gender and sex interchangeability on Facebook

I heard that Facebook’s ‘sex’ field once said ‘gender’, instead.  This somewhat disturbing interchangeability of two very different words, I feel, helpfully highlights the disconnect between Facebook and the complex individuals it attempts to categorise.  Understanding the difficulties involved in gathering historical information on closed software interfaces, I nevertheless looked for evidence to support the claim that the field name had changed from ‘gender’ to ‘sex’.

‘Sex’ influences gendered pronouns on Facebook.  This is clearly visible on profiles, and just about anywhere users are referred to in some way.  This imposed one-to-one relation is also apparent from the language used in ‘He/She/They: Grammar and Facebook‘, a June 2008 post from The Facebook Blog.  It is claimed that some languages have difficulty with non-gendered pronouns.  “For this reason”, they write,

we’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks.

The post goes on to say,

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account […].

(Of note is the fact that it is currently impossible to remove gender from your account, like it supposedly was in June 2008.  Hiding your sex status from everyone does not stop Facebook from referring to you using gendered terms (or using a gendered default picture, if you have no profile photos visible) that relate to your declared sex.)

According a a Facebook user (quoted in Emily Rutherford’s June 2009 article ‘Choose One‘) “this is the only peep ever heard from Facebook regarding this issue”.  Two years later, there are still no other mentions of these options in The Facebook Blog.  Google encountered similar issues with non-gendered language translation in Google+, but managed to get around it because they felt user privacy was more important than the discomfort felt by those few who are uncomfortable reading ‘their’ or ‘they’.  (Also of note, Google are not guilty of instituting a culture of sex/gender interchangeability.)

Looking further I found a few interesting conversations and projects people worked on in response to concerns over this limitation.  Sadly, it appears any and all petitions calling for a revision are ignored.  However, I did come across one highly intriguing comment in the Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition page that claimed setting your language from ‘English (US)’ to ‘English (UK)’ changes references of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’.  That couldn’t be right, I thought, and had to test it out immediately.  But lo and behold, changing the language on your profile options page or the welcome screen, for example, changes the field title.

I have absolutely no idea why this is the case.  Is the gender/sex difference actually considered to be a ‘language difference’ by the Facebook team?  Are different people in charge of the UK translation who happen to have different views on the appropriateness of this field — and hold the power to implement different terminology?

I’m still yet to find any evidence of when — or if — Facebook changed the terminology for all users, but this discovery reveals a situation whereby Facebook is using different terminology to relate to the same field, depending on what settings are used.  I played around with it and confirmed that this difference extends further than self-expression within your own profile — open up the profile page of a user that displays their sex or gender to you and switch your language settings between UK and US English and see what I mean.

This language setting, then, represents a sort of cultural lens through which we understand other users.  What it also represents, however, is a systematic disregard of users’ sex and gender performance.  If I wish to declare my sex in a particular way but others read it as my gender identity (or vice versa), I am being misrepresented.  Some may feel comfortable declaring male or female using one language rather than the other, but the recognition of misrepresentation may destroy any sense of freedom experienced through this act of expression.

In my previous post on sex legitimisation on Facebook I wrote

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

Now I know there are two systems operating simultaneously I realise it’s actually worse than this.  No one can express their sex or gender identity accurately on Facebook unless they believe, just as Facebook has asserted, gender and sex are exactly the same thing.

Sex and gender legitimisation in context

This year I’ve been looking at, among other things, the representation of sex and gender in digital spaces.  My thesis argues that restricting user options in profile fields – not just sex and gender, but these are great examples – alters the way individuals self-identify, through social feedback loops.  Digital representation introduces major issues of marginalisation and safety (which I won’t go into here), but I’m also looking at the limitations of digital technologies in representing real, complex individuals.

Wanting to get into the habit of posting regularly, I thought I’d share something I noticed recently about misrepresentation by context.

When asked for my sex I respond that I am ‘male’.  This is what I self-identify as biologically.  (I don’t identify as male gendered, but I’m going to avoid that discussion to keep this example simple.)  I have ‘guy parts’ and I personally understand sex as correlating to this aspect of my self.  Categorisation is often difficult and inexact but, while a little uncomfortable with the gathering, use and publication of such information, I am fairly happy to categorise myself in this way.

However, I also believe that sex is not a simple binary.  Not everyone falls neatly into a category of sex that allows only one of two responses.  If I casually identify as male, I am doing so without explicitly acknowledging that this comes with the following concession: I don’t believe in the binary notion of sex.  I am male, but this isn’t to be equated with ‘the opposite of female’.

When creating a Facebook account, you are asked (required) to declare your sex as either male or female.  What is interesting here is that, though I personally identify as male, if I chose that option the system would actually be misrepresenting my sexual identity; it represents me as male, but it represents me as male in the context of the limited and often insulting binary idea of sex.

The meaning of words change depending on their context.  If I told someone from the UK that I dislike football, I would have to address the ambiguity of this statement by including, ‘but by that I don’t mean I dislike soccer’.  ‘Football’ can mean different things depending on the national or cultural context, and not simply the sport being referred to; it could relate to the experience of seeing a game in person, playing first-hand, or represent the wider culture of football fans.  In conversation I could provide further details and state exactly what it is I dislike about football, and any qualities I actually find redeemable.  Digital systems, especially those with binary options, rarely allow for such elaboration and precision of response.

Words play an integral part in self-expression.  When the meanings of words we value become heavily simplified and determined by their context within digital systems, when our range of response becomes limited, we lose an important tool for performing our identity.

Some digital systems address the issue of misrepresentation, in regard to gender and sex.  For example, Diaspora* has an optional text field for gender, allowing users to write whatever they want, only if they want.  (I think this is a pretty good response, but I don’t think it is the optimal solution.  I’ll talk more about issues in designing gendered spaces another time.)  The point is that digital systems demonstrate a strong tendency toward allowing users to, often publicly, identify themselves only within a strict vocabulary defined by the system itself.

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.


I begged for an invite and have thus sacrificed part of my dignity to become one of the (temporarily) exclusive group of people with Google+ accounts!

I had read a bit about the service already so much of it wasn’t new to me. I was more interested in the privacy side of things so once I had access I dove straight into reading the privacy policy and playing around with user settings. What follows are a few initial reactions.


People have written a lot about how this feature is either confusing or a breakthrough in social networking. I actually think it’s neither. I’ve been using a similar feature in livejournal for years (functionality to define and choose groups who can read individual posts has been around for almost a decade now – or more than that, as I’m not sure when livejournal first implemented it) and perhaps because of this experience I view such features to be a minimum standard of user empowerment and privacy. If I can’t define my audience on a post-by-post basis, I may fall into the habit of either censoring myself or not being as careful with my message content as I should.

In short, Circles are great and everyone should get in the habit of using them. I feel it’s important for this kind of thing to become a standard feature of social networking sites.

The ‘Gender’ field

Gender identity in a social media context is a strong interest of mine. I’ve written on this previously, but to put it simply, I don’t feel comfortable with the focus technological systems tend to put on gender (or sex) and hate it even more when they are restrictive and prescriptive.

Google+ earns a few points with me because, unlike Facebook, users have the option of choosing ‘Other’ rather than being limited to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. However, Google+ loses a lot of points because users only have the option of choosing ‘Other’ if they don’t wish to pick ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.

Both services make this choice a mandatory one. All users must define themselves in relation to an out-of-date – and in many cases offensive – gender binary. Yes, I am aware that gender is viewed as a highly important field for marketing purposes, and that companies such as Google and Facebook find this information valuable, but for many users on social networking sites gender is either irrelevant or, at least, of no more importance than other, optional fields.

Of course, it can also be argued that gender status is important from a technical perspective, making it possible to use gendered pronouns throughout the system. However, Google+ appears to handle the ‘Other’ option’s syntax quite well. If this is a major reason, it should be clear to users so they can make an informed choice about their user experience. If they prefer gendered pronouns to be associated with their alerts, their profiles can be altered.

It’s about this point in conversations surrounding gender status in social media that I usually link to two great discussions from last year, on this topic in relation to Diaspora.

Sarah Dopp “‘Gender is a Text Field’ (Diaspora, backstory, and context)

Sarah Mei “Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

Gender and privacy

Perhaps helped by my interest in both gender and privacy, I immediately recognised an issue with the Google+ profiles that conflicted with the Google+ Privacy Policy (28 June 2011 version) which states,

In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile.

As I was playing around with the privacy settings in my profile, I noticed that I could not change the visibility of my Gender status. This meant that my Google Profile, at minimum, includes my stated gender as well as the name I chose for my profile. Not only does this conflict with the statement that “You can control the privacy of the content that appears in your profile tabs”; it also directly conflicts with Google+’s Privacy Policy.

One great feature of Google+ is that it has a ‘Send feedback’ button in the bottom right-hand corner of the interface. I was sure to send off some feedback about this conflict – but not before I had a chance to post about it on Google+ and Twitter. To my surprise, on Friday Morning (~8am, +10 GMT), less than 48 hours since I sent my feedback, I noticed that it was now possible to hide Gender from public profiles! I received no reply (hey, they’re probably quite busy this week!) so I can’t be certain this is a result of my work, but I like to think it could have been.

(EDIT: Apparently this change may more likely be a result of a previous campaign, helped by a widely discussed post from Randall Monroe.  Though there is no mention of the Privacy Policy conflict.)

Another issue here is that, because Gender is mandatory – there is no ‘opt-out’ – and, by default, profiles are optimised for search engine results, all users give permission for their stated Gender to be associated with their chosen profile name – at least at the initial stage – and for this to be accessed and archived by searched engines. I can’t test for certain without creating a new account, but I suspect Gender is likely set to public by default. If so, despite them making its visibility alterable, I still feel this is a potential privacy issue.

(It should probably be noted that Facebook is worse in dealing with new user data. Names, gender, birthday and email addresses are public by default, and thus allowable to be used by third-party entities. All the information you provide Facebook during registration is ‘post-opt-out’, a term I plan to write about soon.)

I feel systems such as this should be privacy by default. I feel all publication of personal details should be opt-in. I don’t know if this would be considered a good business model, though, so I’m not holding my breath for corporate players to adopt better practices in this regard. Privacy is still not a large enough issue for that to happen.

Google+ good – Privacy Policy

Google certainly wins points when it comes to simply explaining what it does with user data, and in making it simple to understand how to customise privacy settings. (Though I’m an experienced ‘power user’, so not everyone would feel this is as clear as I do.) However, as Google+ is in very early days, it’s unfair to compare this to Facebook and the regular changes made to its privacy settings. Still, the Google+ package doesn’t have to deal with third-party applications and advertisers (at least ones not already part of Google) so it has a much easier job in this regard.

For now, at least. There is already speculation that Google+ may incorporate other features such as third-party games and applications.

Google – the bad and the ugly

I trust Google to use my data in a way I have consented to. I trust them not to change privacy settings in a way that leaves my personal information temporarily vulnerable. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that the system is there to collect information about me that will be used for marketing purposes. Though I recognise that I’ve registered for a ‘free’ service from a company that needs to make money, reminders about the business relationship we have make me feel uncomfortable.

I was surprised to see recently that pseudonyms are not allowed on Google+ profiles. Facebook does something similar and Mark Zuckerberg has publicly stated it is because accountability guides people to act nicer on the Internet. When people hide behind an anonymous identity they are more likely to act like arseholes to each other. While this may be a correct (though simplistic) observation, there is a strong privacy case for using pseudonyms.

Again, livejournal is a great example here. The system allows users to create an identity that links back to their meatspace identity as much or as little as they like – technical experience permitting. Users may also create multiple identities to better hide interests and, say, membership to support communities from other online friends. When a user loses interest in the content discussed in particular communities, they may leave at any time without their actions being easily attributable back to them in meatspace. My five years as a Sailor Moon fan*, taking part in public discussion with a secret identity can be safely ignored, believed never to come back and haunt me when I run for president.

Google and Facebook, on the other hand, rely on ‘real’ names. This has obvious marketing potential. But it also has not-quite-as-obvious ramifications for identity. Jacob Appelbaum has stated, “Everything you do on the Internet paints a picture that tells a story about you tomorrow.” This is a great quote I keep coming back to because it helps highlight the relation between contemporary action and future ramifications. While it can be argued that all online actions can be tracked back to their source, Facebook and Google make this simple. If I used Facebook rather than livejournal when I expressed my love for the world of Sailor Moon, I’d have that associated with my real name forever. Now imagine how much more concerning this situation is when we start discussing mental health support groups or discussions about illegal actions.

Eric Schmidt once suggested teenagers change their names when they turn eighteen to distance themselves from their youthful hijinks. Realistically, though, a name change is not enough to bury your online activities from anyone if you used your real name to begin with.

But perhaps my biggest issue with Google+ is that it’s ‘like Facebook, but better!’ It’s a step forward in terms of user privacy, but it’s not actually a big step. We’re still being asked to allow a walled garden to mediate our social interaction so they can make money from our personal details through advertising. On the one hand, Google could have done much better and released something revolutionary. On the other hand, this could never have happened if it needed to consider the profitability of such a system. It doesn’t make good business sense to allow Google+ users to easily communicate with other social media platforms.

And this is where we stand. No closer to seeing the mass adoption of a federated social media system that grants users complete control over who holds their data, “just as you now choose your e-mail provider, and yet still connect with friends who use other services.” (Ariel Bleicher, “The Making of Diaspora”)

Also, Google+ does not (yet?) use nested comments. So that’s an automatic minus fifty points from Googfyndor!


Google+ is better than Facebook for various reasons, mostly to do with user privacy. Facebook is still better in practice because Google+ doesn’t have the large user adoption – yet.

But I still don’t like the shared, basic premise of either system. I’ll definitely play around with Google+ for a while longer, and keep submitting feedback every five minutes when I have an idea for improvement (sorry, extremely busy Google developers – it’s just that you’ve got a button right there and it tempts me so!), but I’m going to continue using email to have conversations and organise social engagements because it’s easier, safer, and (among the people I associate with) email raises fewer problems of accessibility.

Until I can use a service to communicate with everyone without requiring them to join a new, commercial service that may not be around forever, it is a broken social networking system.

* I’m only kidding**.

** . . . Or am I? Perhaps that is the point!