Tag Archives: profile systems

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.

Title select

At some point in the past few months I registered for an event where I was given an uncommonly large number of options to choose from for the ‘Title’ field. I’ve written before about how rare it is to have the option to use a non-gendered title, and how even then they are mostly related to official qualifications and roles so they can’t be used legitimately by the average person.

However, this time while scrolling through the list I came across a new, totally unexpected option: ‘The Late’. Even though I didn’t physically qualify for it I just had to choose it.

Whether it’s more likely it was someone’s intentional stroke of genius or if the options were copy/pasted from a list of possible titles without that final but important step of quality control, there’s at least one person who appreciates it.

I wanted to share it but I couldn’t remember where I encountered this. But tonight, while signing in at the UNSW Alumni’s Brainfood Lecture, ‘It Won’t Happen to Me’: Cybercrime Myths and Misconceptions, I saw that all important field waiting to greet me on the paper.

So, for a good example of many options for a title field, though it’s still quite limiting because it is a required field, UNSW Alumni’s registration page is a good place to check out while it’s still up.

Marginalisation remains in Google’s ‘more inclusive’ naming policy

In a post on Google+ today, Bradley Horowitz announced that Google+ have revised their handling of names in order to work “toward a more inclusive naming policy”. In itself, this sounds great, but I was right to be hesitant in my celebration.

Previous problems

There were many issues with Google+’s original ‘Real Names’ policy. Put simply, Google tells users they must use their real names on Google+ and, if it is suspected users are not complying with this, they may have their account suspended – unless they happen to be a high-profile celebrity, of course. Disregarding the obvious profitability that comes with accurate user data, we heard the typical arguments about how real names create accountability and make people play nice with one another. (I’m still far from convinced this is the case. Boing Boing has a nice, recent discussion on this debate if you’re interested.)

The Geek Feminism Wiki page, Who is harmed by a “Real Names” Policy?, which I keep linking everyone to, highlights the issues better than I can. Along with the simple technical issues – ‘Um, I don’t have exactly two names so I can’t fill in my real name in your system?’ – comes a long list of people who can not or do not want to use their real name for valid reasons such as safety, avoiding harassment, or not wanting their voice marginalised due to assumptions others make about them from their name.  This is a real issue for a lot of people directly, and for the rest indirectly – we lose their voices in the conversation.

So any improvements on the policy should be positive, right?

The changes

As well as facilitating more languages (this is great!) Google has allowed users to include a desired nickname along with their full, ‘real name’.  To be absolutely clear, there is no indication that users will ever be allowed to hide their real name from others. This is simply a feature that allows users to include additional information.

First and last names are still unable to be hidden on Google+.I admit, this is a step forward, but it certainly is, as Horowitz states, “a small step”. They’re helping people use more complicated real names and they’re helping people be recognised next to their more common pseudonyms. But the people for whom major changes are more urgent are not assisted at all here. Those victims of assault who don’t want do be located by their abusers? Those people who dare to prefer that their social presence is not easily searchable by banks and potential future employers? Citizens who want their words heard for what they say rather than for the gender or colour of the hands that type them? They still need to be comfortable listing their full, legal names or not use the service at all. In short, they’re still not welcome.

Statistics and justifications

And this is where it pains me to read the justifications for this system change. It is claimed that because users submit three times more appeals to state a nickname than to use a pseudonym primarily, this is a reasonable response. However, if people do not want to declare their real names in the first place, then they would not fall under the category of ‘users’. They are not included as part of this statistic that wants to be included. However, if it’s simply referring to users attempting to create a new account (the wording is a little unclear), this isn’t including those who are aware of the real names policy and do not bother signing up as a result, or join using a fake name that the system happens to let through. They go unrecorded.

Of course, there are other issues with the wording as it stands – just because someone doesn’t submit a name appeal (I haven’t!) it doesn’t mean they have no opinion on this issue or would not be negatively affected by Google doing nothing – but the suggestion that allowing pseudonyms is an unimportant feature request because of some careful number gathering appears to be an indication that they’re just going to keep on avoiding this legitimate concern. They’ve “listened closely to community feedback” but decided to only implement those changes that don’t question the original real names policy.

In short, I believe the stated 0.02% of users who submit a name appeal to use a pseudonym is a strong under-representation of the number of users who would actually prefer this option – not to mention those who would simply like it to be available, even if they don’t change their own name to a pseudonym.

Every time I see Google implementing a new feature, I see ever more clearly who they really are.

I read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta this afternoon while thinking about social media service exclusions. The following verse from V’s sardonic, “This Vicious Cabaret”, struck me as relevant here:

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore, there’s sing-songs and surprises!

There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!

There’s mischiefs and malarkies . . .

but no queers . . . or yids . . . or darkies . . .

within this bastard’s carnival, this vicious cabaret.

So, I admit it may be a stretch to suggest Google is comparable to the fascist, post-apocalyptic governing body in power throughout most of the story, but the point is, if these services do what they (as corporations) intend to and gain a strong user base, while also refusing service to significant demographics and important voices, they begin erode those democratic elements of communication we were promised at the dawn of the Internet.

And this isn’t the world I want to live in.

Stick-figure sexism and user profiles or: my new favourite xkcd comic

My research became a little more complicated in November.  And by ‘complicated’, I always mean ‘interesting and fun’.

I was having a conversation with Nina Funnell about my work on gendered spaces and how this influences practices of social engagement.  The idea is that enforced gender declaration together with a limited range of response and an imposed prominence of this attribute creates issues for equality of participation.  Users with perceived feminine profiles are often marginalised, their voices weakened through experiences of harassment, whether direct or observed (one study found “female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames”1), and gender stereotyping.

Gender, I find, is a helpful example that explains this issue of marginalisation and fairness of participation within communities.  But it is a specific illustration that highlights a broader issue where individuals are not considered equal in practice – whether through silencing or through others internally delegitimising others’ voices through stereotyping – and the level of control individuals have to diminish the negative stereotypes that work against them.

One clear solution is to give individuals more control over deciding what aspects of themselves they wish to reveal.  Removing the mandatory gendering of social media spaces and allowing pseudonyms, for example, is a good step in the right direction.  Users ‘a1’ and ‘a2’ (with no other declared attributes) are arguably far more equal than users ‘alison’ and ‘ben’.  The more attributes added to the basic user ‘skeleton’ the less equal users become, depending on the viewers and their personal understandings of these attributes within a social context and their process of stereotyping.  I argue that digital systems have too much control over the mandatory enforcement of declaring information that becomes publicly attributable to the users.

Putting it simply, publicly categorising users within communities, such as gendering spaces through mandatory declaration, harms equality of participation.

Giving users more control over their public appearance may seem like a simple solution that fosters equality in community engagement.  In fact, this was the direction my argument had been taking for much of the year.  However!, a real solution is much more complex.

Nina mentioned a concept called ‘stick-figure sexism’.  It is where we are shown a simple stick figure and we are asked to describe the type of person we believe it represents.  More often than not, the response outlines a middle-aged, able-bodied, white male.  This, then, is said to be considered a ‘normal’ person (in stick-figure land), and any divergence to it is represented through ‘add-ons’ such as long hair, coloured in heads that represent different skin shades, walking canes, etc.

gethen blog has a fun, short post on stick-figure sexism, which describes xkcd comics as a “serial offender”2.  On a related note, I’d like to share my new favourite xkcd comic, as published on that post.

Remixed by gethenhome from the xkcd original.

Hearing about this concept, I recognised important implications for my own work.  If I’m advocating the removal of mandatory categorical fields within public user profiles, it is conceivable that some communities may be no better off – or be even worse.  If we remove our focus on gender, say, then it could give rise to the assumption that more users fall under whatever gender we imagine is more likely to participate within those communities.  We may assume that all (or the vast majority of) ungendered, pseudonymous users are young, white, male Americans and in doing so destroy the sense of diversity we are led to experience in real-world situations.

All in all, I believe the negative consequences of this (let’s give it a name) ‘profile sexism’ in practice will be small, especially when compared to the positive consequences that would be far more apparent.  However, it’s certainly important for me to address in my work.  To find a reasonable solution we need to look at both the technical and social gendering of spaces.

An early observation I noted was that, through many years’ engagement with communities on livejournal, I have personally experienced many situations where assumptions have not followed this idea of profile sexism.  In fact, many communities lead me to perceive a large variation of cultures (I use the term very loosely) coming together to discuss a topic they have a shared interest in.  One reason for this is that I’ve been participating within these communities for so long that of course it would have sunk in that users are from different locations and account for a variety of different cultural demographics.  This idea suggests the sense of multiculturalism and the acceptance of various views is learned over time.  However, it’s difficult to determine the strength of this because it’s difficult to remember first impressions to compare present understandings to.

Another reason for the sense of inclusiveness I register from these communities is that there is something about them, some aspect of the design – influenced by the livejournal system, the community moderators and the members themselves – that may facilitate this.  It may be possible that some element of these communities’ appearance suggests they are more welcoming and inclusive than, say, the feeling I get reading YouTube and reddit comments, or user responses to articles on smh.com.

In truth, it’s probably a mix of both a learned understanding through previous interaction and particular design elements that help inform a sense of inclusiveness.  In effect, what I’m now looking at (though this is only a small part of my research) is a way to determine better system design for various communities, based on the kind of interaction desired, arguing against the common privacy demarcation between Zuckerberg’s and Schmidt’s “communities are better when everything is public [also: we can make more money from it]” and my previous call for users to have full control over their public profiles and be discouraged from publicising anything that’s not relevant.

I still hold the latter view, of course.  But I seek to determine which elements of system design facilitate healthy interaction between users with different backgrounds and social identifications.  This can’t be answered simply by discussing ‘privacy’.

Oh, look, I appear to have summarised my thesis in a few sentences.


1. “Female-Name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages”, 9 May 2006, physorg.com, <http://www.physorg.com/news66401288.html>

2. “Stick-Figure Sexism”, 29 December 2009, gethenhome.wordpress.com, <http://gethenhome.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/stick-figure-sexism/>