Google+ has a gender problem

Google+ sign up page with gender options Male, Female, and OtherGoogle+ is the hot new thing in social networking (the jury’s still out for me on whether it’s a positive addition). But the first thing I encountered when I went to sign up for the site sent up my gender flares and painted it in a negative light from the start. And I’m not talking about the possibly erroneous claim the site has a huge male majority.

Users are required to provide two pieces of information: their name, and their gender. And the gender options are Male, Female, and Other.

Facebook’s gender policy has been criticized for a long time because of the lack of options, but at least putting a gender marker on your profile is optional. With Google+, gendering yourself is a requirement for entry.

I fit just fine into the Google+ categories: I’m female, and that does not actually need to be qualified with “trans” all the time. But plenty of people don’t fit into the categories Male and Female. Google+ acknowledges this somewhat, but damn, Other is such an offensive way to do so it might hurt more than it helps. People identify their genders in a myriad of ways, and “other” is just as valid a label for someone to claim as genderqueer, gender non-conforming, trans, two spirit… But defaulting to “other” to describe people who don’t fit into your sanctioned categories is, well, othering.

Look, I can think of reasons that make a lot of sense for why Google+ would make this decision. Social networking sites often use pronouns, so having that information is useful. And let’s not forget, it’s super useful to advertisers (always gotta think about the money angle). But that doesn’t make the decision OK. When someone on Facebook doesn’t have a gender chosen the site defaults to “they/their” for pronouns. Is that really so complicated?

Finally, I know this is a super scary concept, but it’s not actually all that hard to list more gender options. I’ve organized conferences where we worked to include a range of gender identities on registration forms (including an option to not pick one or to pick multiple terms) that included a whole range of categories for trans and gender non-conforming folks. Yes, it took a little bit of time to build the list, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The result was inclusive forms that also happened to give us much more interesting demographic information.

New race and ethnicity categories are being added to the US census all the time, and the world has yet to end as a result.

If the issue’s pronouns, why not (again, optionally) ask for preferred pronouns, and include options like they/their and ze/hir? What’s the worst that could happen? It causes a public reaction and we get a teachable gender moment?

Male, Female, Other feels like people who don’t fit into Male/Female and him/her are being told their gender issues are frivolous and unimportant, not a part of their identities and humanity deserving of as much respect as the genders of people who do fit.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • Melissa

    I had this same discussion when I first signed up for Google. I was so appalled that the only option besides male and female was other. I had the same thought as the writer above that those not identifying as male or female were being told that they (we) did not matter.
    I did feel good that through my spouting off about it, I articulated the issues well enough to make at least one otherwise unsuspecting person understand.
    Does Google have some sort of forum for addressing this issue??

    • Ralph Friedman

      @Melissa: At the bottom of the G+ page, there is a “Feedback” link.

  • JT

    Great post! Google+’s gender options rubbed me the wrong way, too, and you have articulated the “why” far better than I could have. I had similar feelings when I recently took a work-related survey that offered “male,” “female,” and “transgender” as gender options. I appreciated that they were trying to include trans people but was taken aback that “transgender” was used as a catch-all for everyone who doesn’t identify as male or female. (I also resented the implication that if one is trans, one cannot be truly male or female.) A fill-in-the-blank field for gender would be such an improvement!

  • davenj

    “What’s the worst that could happen? It causes a public reaction and we get a teachable gender moment?”

    I think you actually answered this a few paragraphs up: the worst that can happen is that there is a public backlash against Google by people who are in favor of a rigid gender binary. Given how many people actively support this binary, adding additional gender options could create significant negative publicity, and torpedo Google+, or turn all the press about it into this “teachable moment” instead of focusing on the product.

    Given what you said previously, “always gotta think about the money angle”, it makes sense that Google would decide to do this, if it was a decision as opposed to an omission based on ignorance. That doesn’t make it right or good, but it is the reason why corporations (and Google is a corporation) make the decisions that they make: perceived profit.

  • Angela Williams

    I work in a domestic violence shelter, and I believe it was two years ago when we changed what client statistics we had to collect and maintain to agree with the US census to meet our funders’ new requirements. They had us start collecting ethnicity and race differently, and also included an “other” category for “sex.” It was all I could do not to facepalm at the meeting it was announced in. This year, “Other” was removed from the options. If I had to guess, it was because people found the term as offensive as I did and no one used it.

  • Sally

    I just sent google feedback (via the little button in the right bottom corner). Here is what I said:
    I appreciate that you acknowledge that some people don’t identify as female/male, but I’m not sure that giving an “other” category is enough. It’s very, well, othering. Also, requiring that gender be an always-displayed part of the profile can cause problems for people who don’t want their gender to feature prominently in their online (or offline) identity.

    I know that google is progressive on LGBT issues, so please consider expanding the gender options of google+.

    On the other hand, I really appreciate the civil unions and domestic partnership options in relationship status.

    Google is known as an LGBT+ friendly company. I think if there was sufficient response to the gender categories, it might get changed. Maybe a petition is in order?

  • Steven Olson

    If it is the way it is because of a decision, there might not be anything that can be done, but if it was by omission, then contacting google might work, since google+ is still in its beta testing phase.

  • litcritter0

    Maybe they should borrow a page from Facebook and say, “It’s complicated”.

    Or, as Gina Trapani has suggested, just give people ten characters or so and see what they say. Could be really interesting.

  • radicallyqueer

    I was relieved that there was a not-male-or-female option, because I was really excited about G+ and would’ve had to opt out otherwise. But I think “neither” would be much better than other, and more inclusive. Even better would be options like “neither,” “both,” and “prefer not to say.” I think it’s a problem that there is no “prefer not to say,” because it does end up erasing those of us who do have an alternative identity to the binary. A lot of people are assuming that “other” means “I don’t want to specify my gender” (and am likely female). Especially for someone who grew up female and looks female, it’s frustrating how this assumption takes away my ability to proudly claim my gender identity and encourage people to think.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that having a list would necessarily be a good solution, because gender terms are so much in flux, vary from culture to culture, and there are so many that you’d inevitably leave someone out. It’d be nice if there were a fill-in-the-blank option where you could define your own gender, even if it were one of those “Other: ___” options.

  • Magpie

    What continues to blow my mind is that gender is ever a required field. I’m working my way through Kate Bornstein’s “My Gender Workbook” right now and there’s an exercise that involves calling any organization/application/etc. that requires you to state your gender in order to join/participate, and asking them what their reasons are for requiring you to disclose something so personal (not to mention complicated and, in all probability, irrelevant). If you want to share your gender, that’s fabulous, and it should definitely be a text field (just like race/ethnicity or any other socially constructed and massively diverse cultural identifier should be a text field), but you should never be forced to share it.

  • A Viescas

    Yeah, this bothered me too. I wish I could have left it blank or filled in an “N/A.”

  • Cassandra

    I am not sure I get it. From where I sit, I’m happy that we’re given the “Other” option. I gladly adopted it as my own. (I’m genderflex, and cyclically identify with one or the other gender).

    I suppose they could be more granular, but the list could get long.
    As it is, I felt that they allowed a person to select a gender of preference -should they strongly identify with one- or to choose to not select one. Seems fair to me.

    Frankly, with all the wrongs and injustices in this little mudball of ours, I try to not nitpick at someone’s attempts to get it right. I prefer to reserve my vitriol for those blatantly getting it wrong.

  • Cassandra

    BTW, I think radicallyqueer is onto something with “neither,” “both,” and “prefer not to say”. And litcritter0, you made me smile with “It’s complicated.” :-)
    Your option of leaving it as a free text field would surely help us understand ourselves better as a people.

  • Bradley Horowitz

    We’re listening. The product is in early field trial. We’re < 2 weeks into the learning experiencing, but adapting quickly in response to feedback. Please see this important announcement regarding visibility of gender:

    Announcement regarding visibility of gender

    While “other” may not yet be the perfect alternative, I insisted that we have an option that gave voice to those that didn’t self-identify as strictly “male” or “female”. Again, we’re still learning and I’m sure there is ample opportunity to improve there too…

    Bradley Horowitz
    VP Product, Google+

    • Jos

      Thanks Bradley, nice to see the Google+ team being responding so quickly.

    • inallsincerity

      Hey Bradley,
      Thank you so much for advocating for a bit of gender liberty! Your efforts really are appreciated. When I sat down at my computer with my coffee this morning and read this comment, I had to shout out to my husband in the other room “The internet is winning today!”

      Just to throw in my thoughts on the topic– a lot of people are annoyed by gender-targeted advertising. Many people who identify as female actually would prefer NOT to see diet ads or ads for cleaning products or yogurt (have you seen Sara Haskins AMAZING segment called “Target Women?”) and many of those in the male/men category are pretty tired of cologne, beer and condom ads. Of course offensive gender stereotyping is not Google+’s problem, but happier users = more frequent users, right? Leaving the gender field optional is a great way to engage this group.

      About the possibility of listing other gender categories (intersex/intergender/agender/bigender etc) they do exist. If something exists, I don’t see them problems in acknowledging that it exists. If folks choose those options as a “joke” that will simply increase awareness about the existence of those genders. Many people who have never heard of agender, will see it as an option and then go Google it (also good for Google, no?). People mess around with gender in a humorous way already– women choose male and men choose female, allowing more people to mess around with gender designations is not going to beckon Armageddon. All it’s going to do is maybe cause a few realizations here and there that gender is not some sort of megalithic unchangeable indisputable force of inherent fact.

      Honestly, I can’t see a downside in allowing more gender options. It does nothing to hurt the majority and it does a lot to help minorities.

  • Megan Ringrose

    An hour ago Google announced that in the next week Plus users will be able to set their gender to private.

    “Frances Haugen – Yesterday 11:28 PM – Public
    Great news! I’m proud to announce Google+ Profiles is launching a new privacy enhancement in response to user feedback. Starting later this week, you will be able to set the privacy setting of your gender on your Google+ Profile just as you control other information about yourself. :-)”

  • Sho Iyer

    I agree with Magpie, we need to move past beyond requiring Gender as being part of our identity. social networking is used mostly to connect with people you already know, so it’s presumed they at least know what gender you identify with. And for those that add you on a whim because your public profile is interesting, well, their interest in you should not be encouraged or dissuaded by what gender you identify as.

    I know it’s “convenient” for these sites so as to be able to write ‘his comment’ ‘her comment’, but I’m pretty sure people would be okay with ‘their’ and ‘they’.

    Also, this is something I noticed on Facebook, I don’t know if it’s an anomaly, but my sister does not specify her gender on the site, and when I get an email about something she posted on, it always says ‘___ also commented on his wall post’. Erm?

  • Tan

    I am genderqueer and I don’t agree with most of this. When I was signing up for Google+ I was unbelievably happy to see a third gender category. Yes, it’s “other”, and yes, that’s not “genderqueer” or “bigender” or “agender,” etc, and it doesn’t let you select your own pronouns, but why were we expecting that? For me, it’s incredible just to be acknowledged. That Google knows I EXIST and wants to provide an option for me that allows me to declare a gender and use pronouns that make me feel comfortable. I think this is a huge step up from options such as “unspecified.” On sites with this option, it is usually assumed that you don’t want to reveal whether you’re male or female. And I definitely prefer this by far over Facebook’s option of hiding one’s gender, because at least I can declare that I am not male OR female, but rather another gender entirely. I don’t want to hide my gender. And Google allows me to make myself visible, to explicitly declare myself as something other than male or female.

    I see this as a step in the right direction. We can’t have everything at once, obviously. It’s amazing to me that they’re acknowledging non-binary people at all. Let’s be honest: non-binary people are practically invisible. At least your every day Google user would most likely recognize and be somewhat able to define words such as “transsexual” or “transgender,” but if you threw in “genderqueer” or “gender fluid” or “androgynous,” they’d be clueless. If those were available options, I could easily see them being abused by cisgender people who don’t know better or who think they’re being funny. Similar things have happened to me before, by cisgender allies [allies, even!] appropriating my pronoun preferences just to look funny. So instead of condemning Google for taking a step in the right direction, we should be trying to spread awareness and education about non-binary people to the general public.

    And in the meantime? I’m happy to just be visible for once.

  • Mickey

    Maybe I missed something? I don’t recall Google+ have any gender categories at all. I saw a space where I could declare my sex if I chose. But I seemed to miss the space where I’d divulge my gendered identification.

    • rhian

      I don’t know if they did in the past, but I just signed up for it, and they do require you to select Male/Female/Other in order to join. You can’t get away with leaving it blank.

  • liv79

    Perhaps this is beside the point, but for myself, I choose “other” in my various social media outlets because I want to avoid gendered advertising plastered all over my pages. I prefer not to be targeted for biased and sexualized advertising based on what gender I present.

  • Simon

    Fwiw … gender’s *not* optional on facebook. Or at least, once you choose a gender, you can’t un-choose and go back to unspecified. I used to switch between he and they on fb all the time, cuz, y’know, complicated gender is complicated, but the latest update happened a couple of months ago while I was on “he” and since then my only options have been male/he and female/she. (Sigh.)

  • Shiva

    Well, Facebook actually requires (at least in France) that you chose between male and female when you create an account, as I just noticed, creating a fake account just for testing… I got the error message : “Veuillez indiquer ‘homme’ ou ‘femme’.” => You have to check ‘man’ or ‘woman’…