Gender as a text field: What Wikipedia can learn from Facebook

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Ismael Nery - Andrógino.jpg

We are more than our sex and more than our gender, and many users want more nuanced options for identifying themselves online. Andrógino by Ismael Nery. Public Domain.

She/He/Prefer not to say

Last year, Facebook introduced more than 50 drop-down options for gender identification[1]. In February 2015, the social media giant took another step, allowing users to override the drop-down options with their own terms[2]. Today, the English language Wikipedia offers three gendered options via Preferences > Internationalisation > “How do you prefer to be described?”: “prefer not to say,” “she,” and “he”[3]. While these options provide an alternative to the biological binary, they are still closely tied to it. For example, Help:Preferences reads, “Option to reveal your sex [emphasis added] in order for the software to grammatically refer to you correctly.”

Sex and Gender Differences

So, what’s the difference between sex and gender identification? Sex generally refers to biological and physiological characteristics[4]. One is born male, female, or with biological variations that may be described as intersex[5]. The degree of one’s biological “maleness” or “femaleness” may vary even if one is recognized as either side of the binary at birth (or, through the marvels of modern medicinal technologies, in utero). Hormone levels fluctuate from person to person and throughout life, sometimes shifting the degrees to which we present “maleness” or “femaleness”–even physiologically. Biological sex means a female may be able to conceive and bear a child. It also means a male may have more muscle mass and be stronger than a female of the same size and age.

Gender refers to “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate”[6] for a given biological sex. Gender, then, may be related to but not the same as sex. Gender may mean women are expected to be the primary caregivers for children, or are expected to have children simply because they can. It also means men may be expected to be physically stronger than women and more interested in feats of said strength.

Gender also extends beyond the binary of man/woman. For those who identify as the sex and associated gender assigned at birth–sometimes called cisgendered–thinking about notions of non-gendered, transgendered, or genderqueer may be uncomfortable. However, gender identity is an essential part of self-identity and, consequently, an essential part of how we perceive others.

Of course, sex and gender based expectations don’t apply across all individuals at all times. Some females can’t conceive and bear a child. Some males don’t have more muscle mass and aren’t stronger than females of the same size and age. Some women don’t want to have or care for children. Some men don’t want to compete in displays of physical strength. While sex and gender evidence patterns and these patterns are used to construct expectations (or stereotypes), we know from our lived experiences that we are all more than male/female, or man/woman. We are more than our sex and more than our gender.

How We Frame the “Gender Gap”

The term “gender gap” was first coined by Eleanor Smeal in the 1980s to describe patterns in voting differences between men and women in the U.S. presidential elections[7]. Today, the term may be used to note specific differences in the labor market[8][9], or broader disparities across areas such as health, politics, and education[10]. Essentially, using the term “gender gap” signals a discrepancy in patterns between men and women. It’s important to note, however, that discussions regarding a “gender gap” of any kind are almost always binary and do not always recognize differences amongst men and women.

Intersectionality, a term introduced by the work of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the late 1980s, suggests and seeks to understand how “various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, caste, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic injustice and social inequality” [11].

Wikipedia’s “gender gap” has been framed as a lack of female contributors[12] resulting in biased and skewed content as well as different editing experiences[13]. While the work I’ve done in my IEG thus far supports these findings, throughout my interviews (n = 30) and in response to my survey (n = 125), I’ve heard another voice from the community: one that questions how we frame the “gender gap.” For example, one survey participant notes:

[T]here is an absurd and very sexist notion that the gender gap is only a problem if women are indeed “useful”, i.e. contribute to articles not already covered by the existing base of editors. This completely sidesteps the problem.

An interview participant shares:

I think that gender is something that we’re trained in and it’s enacted culturally. I mean, sure, there are some fundamental biological differences and some of those are probably neurological and so on. But it doesn’t seem to me like that, that your sex and gender are the most important property. Since 2010 I’ve come to acknowledge that it’s important to look at the community aspect of a Wikipedia. It’s important to think about people who are involved. I still think like that in some ways because what we get is a product of who’s writing it.

But I’m more concerned about the product and the process than about how do we recruit more women to edit Wikipedia. That doesn’t seem really central to me. It’s more important to me that we get information from all over the world and from a lot of different cultures. It’s more important to me that we at least have some plan for balance and coverage among topics. If we’re going to go out and try to recruit the perfect community of people whom we want to edit, then it’s no longer exactly the community, like “anyone can edit,” but it’s the “Let’s try to balance the contributors.” I don’t know.

Probably the first experience I had personally of the gender gap in this way was going to a meeting at Wikimania which was the women’s meeting. I’m not even really sure why I was there because I often get really uncomfortable in these spaces where we’re specifically trying to enact gender in some way. It often feels really unnatural to me.

What I hear in these–and other similar–responses is that our framing of the “gender gap” may need to be more careful, considerate, and nuanced–even if it takes more time and effort. Women have had negative experiences (e.g., sexual harassment, gender-based trolling, rape threats, and death threats) while editing Wikipedia. Some have actively avoided certain parts of the community, certain kinds of work, and specific editors so that they don’t have these kind of experiences. Yet, many women have had only positive experiences regardless of the kinds of work they do. Intersectionality, agency, and individual differences influence these experiences. Still, if Wikipedia values diversity and would like to see an increase in a wide range of all kinds of editors, there may need to be shifts in rhetoric, policies, and tools that make Wikipedia a more welcoming space for those who are not “born Wikipedian.”

How We Shape Technology and How It Shapes Us

A user interface that gives users only the options of “prefer not to say,” “she,” or “he” subtly pushes the binary and potentially alienates anyone who chooses not to participate in it. For example, if a user identifies as neither “she” nor “he” but doesn’t want to present as anonymous or secretive, “prefer not to say” can be read only as Other. This kind of UI limitation may also produce skewed data.

It’s true the English language proves problematic here; for a case study, review the Wikipedia article about Chelsea Manning and the associated Talk pages. However, the English language, like all languages, is fluid. Just as it shapes us, we shape it. We introduce new words, or neologisms, to reflect new technologies, new ideas, and new experiences. As Adrianne Wadewitz and Phoebe Ayers pointed out in their HASTAC blog post about the case of the Chelsea Manning article: “Wikipedia’s policies are constructed to try to ensure editorial consistency under the broad umbrella of a few guiding principles (neutrality, factualness) — but they are constructed over time, by editors, working through back-and-forth discussions and case by case on articles. And like all Wikipedia articles, these policies are a work in progress, shaped by the editors who come to the table”[14].

Facebook’s decision to introduce more than 50 gender identification options via a drop-down menu elicited both praise and criticism. Facebook Diversity reports the decision was made in collaboration with their “Network of Support, a group of leading LGBT advocacy organizations” to support their goal for “you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self”[15]. Several news hosts[16] and some religious organizations[17][18] quickly denounced Facebook’s decision, while others questioned whether the change had been motivated by a desire to better target ads and why Facebook had decided on using a controlled vocabulary rather than a text field. Perhaps in response to these criticisms and continued research studies[19], Facebook has now made a “progressive”[20] move away from a controlled vocabulary to a free-form field.

Like Facebook, the open source community Diaspora enables users to gender-identify beyond the binary. Diaspora has also introduced a text field–though not without much controversy and criticism. Recently, the dating site OkCupid added gender and sexuality options[21]. Again, their decision has been both praised and criticized[22][23][24]. At the end of 2014, with very little media fanfare, Google+ introduced a custom gender field too, allowing users to enter “infinite” options [25][26].

Collecting and analyzing gender identification data is, as we see in the responses to Facebook, Diaspora, and OkCupid a nuanced and potentially political endeavor. When it comes to Wikipedia and efforts to address the “gender gap,” it’s not only important how the topic is framed, but it’s also important to understand the complexities of self-reported data and to remember social technologies are inherently social. One way Wikipedia communities may continue to address the “gender gap” is by re-thinking what is meant by “gender,” and by carefully developing a technology that reflects desired values–even if we’re not quite there yet. If gender becomes a text field, there may be irreverent comments in response and the data may not be standardized[27]. However, questioning the underlying values and assumptions implicit in our technologies and policies and contemplating new approaches signals an openness to diversity and, in fact, provides a much richer data set.

Amanda Menking, PhD student at the University of Washington’s Information School

This is the second post related to Amanda Menking’s Individual Engagement Grant from the Wikimedia Foundation: Women and Wikipedia. Views presented here are the author’s own; discussion is welcome in the comment section of this blog post.



Archive notice: This is an archived post from, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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What is this post saying? That cultural, geographic and socioeconomic diversity is sufficient, and that women aren’t needed in order for Wikipedia to be considered inclusive?!
I don’t understand what the thesis, sorry, central point of this post is, at all.

«A user interface that gives users only the options of “prefer not to say,” “she,” or “he” subtly pushes the binary». As this is the central point, it’s worth noting that MediaWiki does NOT do such a thing.
If some part of the interface (probably the non-MediaWiki parts?) do so on (some) Wikipedia, that can be fixed. Usually, reporting on the talk page or editing directly is the best option.

Have you thought of the languages where gender is visible in grammar (and thus in MediaWiki messages)? The main purpose of the gender field is to display messages in appropriate gender, not to collect some fun stats.
In many languages grammatically you can display messages either for “him” or for “her” (e.g. “he edited a page” and “she edited a page” will use a different form of verb), and there is no “text field” option. If you want to display gender as a text field, opt for a userbox on your user page instead of making the system more complex.