Gender, Identity and Naming

Avoid ‘real names’ policies

Some website owners, in an effort to control abusive behaviour, require their users to use their ‘real names’ (by which I mean names listed on government identification). This is most notable as a feature of Facebook’s terms and conditions, where people have found their accounts suspended or disabled because they were believed to be using pseudonyms. These policies have been a contentious issue online over the past few years, catalysed by the ‘nymwars’ that happened after the opening of the Google+ social networking service.

Real-names policies come from a valid place of concern – the desire to reduce the amount of trolling and harassment on social-networking sites, forums and comment sections in blogs – but the solution to the problem doesn’t actually come from imposing such a policy. It makes more sense to try to control the behaviour that’s actually problematic, rather than trying to force everybody to use names that match government-issued identification.

Some people have been victims of online harassment and stalking. Forcing victims of domestic abuse and violence to use their legal identities opens them up to identification and harassment from abusers.  Transgender, gender-variant and genderqueer people may not have had their names legally changed via court order or deed poll and may not want to sign up using their birth name. Some people prefer to use the internet to reflect a different aspect of themselves from the persona they present at work. And some people have been banned from ‘real names’ sites simply because they have unfamiliar non-Western names or unusual given or chosen legal names. All these reasons are perfectly valid ones, and are a good reason to reconsider strict ‘real’-name policies.

There’s also a difference between being pseudonymous and anonymous. You can ask your users to use a persistent pseudonym on the site and ban anonymous comments.

Geek Feminism has a comprehensive list of who is harmed by a real-name policy, and My Name is Me has a collection of personal narratives from people who are affected by these policies.

Accessibility, Gender, Internationalisation, Localisation

Link roundup: 12 April 2015

Most of these links are OS X-related for now – I think the next roundup will have a Windows or Linux focus to make up for it.


Be gender-inclusive

Avoid sexism when marketing your tech product or writing documentation. Despite stereotypes, men are not the only people who use computers.

You can avoid the ‘all competent computer users are male’ assumption by:

  • Using gender-neutral language in your documentation. Don’t use ‘he’ as a generic pronoun to refer to your users – instead of saying something like ‘a user should go to the Preferences menu to choose his settings’, rewrite the sentence to be gender-neutral. In some languages, using ‘he’ as a generic pronoun is typical, but in English, many people consider this offensive or sexist. A good way of doing this is making the subject of the sentence plural, so it reads ‘users should go to the Preferences menu to choose their settings’. You can also use the second person: ‘you should go to the Preferences menu to choose your settings’, or use the singular ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun: ‘a user should go to the Preferences menu to change their settings’. NB: some traditionalists object to the singular-they construction, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
  • Showing different kinds of people using your product if you use images to advertise your application or game. Show people of all genders, not just men. Try to make sure there’s a mixed group of people, so it doesn’t look like tokenisation where you’ve got a single woman in a sea of men.
  • Don’t use women as your image of a novice or non-technical computer user, like guides that write about ‘Linux that your mother can use’. The Geek Feminism wiki has a good article about avoiding making women the stereotype of novice or non-technical computer users, which is worth a read if you’re trying to make your website, game, operating system or application more inclusive. There are men who don’t have a clue what FTP, PHP and Angular are, and there are women who are experts at all those things. Don’t be sexist and pander to tired, hurtful assumptions about the gender of your users.

Dealing with gender on websites

The best solution is actually the simplest: just avoid requiring your users to pick a gender, either by omitting gender as a field or making it optional rather than required. But if you want to include a user’s gender as an option, the most inclusive way of handling it would be to allow genders other than the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ options, even if it’s just ‘other’. Sarah Dopp has written a very helpful guide for developers that can help them create more inclusive gender selectors. You can also use the SGOSelect menu as a model for creating gender-inclusive dropdown menus.

Some popular websites like Tumblr don’t even ask for a gender, which hasn’t had a negative impact on the popularity of the site. Older websites, however, like Yahoo and AIM, still demand that you should choose from two binary options, with no ‘decline to state’, ‘other’ or write-in options to choose from. Forcing people to choose a binary gender can be alienating or offensive, especially to people who don’t identify with the gender binary or see themselves as being gender-fluid. It can also be a violation of privacy; many women prefer not to identify themselves as women online because of the potential for sexist bullying and sexual harassment. (And if you’re forcing people to choose a gender because of advertising, you may just be displaying things based on gender stereotypes, a problem Sarah Dopp has also mentioned in her article – ‘not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars’. There are men who collect dolls and women who restore classic cars. Single fathers who wouldn’t mind having diapers/nappies advertised to them, but childfree butch women who would. People are complicated.)

If you do include a gender selector, there is no need to restrict it to ‘male’ and ‘female’. It’s becoming increasingly common for web services – even advertising- and data-driven ones like Google – that require a gender to be selected to choose a neutral option. Google services offer the ‘other’ gender option, which isn’t perfect, but it’s still better than having to choose from the binary options. Facebook introduced a variety of non-binary gender options in 2014 on their English-language sites (both US and UK). Livejournal and Dreamwidth offer ‘other’ or ‘unspecified’ options. Flickr has offered ‘decline to say’ and ‘other’ options for years, though their parent company, Yahoo, has never included an ‘other’ gender option.

And whatever you do, don’t call your gender selector a ‘sex’ selector.