Your app doesn't need to know my gender

Monday, May 8, 2023

So often when we sign up for an application, it asks us for our gender, sex, or title. For example, there is a cycling app called Zwift which I use to ride indoors. When you sign up, you enter your gender.

On the app, they say that you need to be honest because it impacts things. They say "Be Honest! - Accurate weight, height, and gender information helps keep your results as realistic as possible." On the website, it is more transparent: which gender you select affects which leaderboard you show up on and which events you can participate in.

It also impacts what your avatar looks like. If you select that you're male, you get a traditionally male avatar, and if you select you're female, you get a traditionally female avatar.

It's common to take this approach. You want to know how the avatar should look and what events to put the user in, so you ask for their gender. But there's a problem.

Well, there are a few problems.

The first glaring problem is that this is a false binary. Non-binary people exist, and there are myriad other gender identities which do not fit cleanly into the man/woman binary. And not everyone within that false binary does present that way! So that's problem one. Want to fix it? Give at least two other choices: prefer not to self-identify, and other.

But the bigger problem here is that the gender choice does not actually tell you what the person looks like or which leaderboards they should be on. A better, more inclusive solution is to ask the relevant questions.

What do you want your avatar to look like? Do you want to be masculine, feminine, or androgynous? Ideally, you can mix and match all the elements you want to present how you wish. But at a bare minimum, people should have a choice of how their avatar presents.

Which leaderboard do you want to be on and events do you want to be invited to? Open competitions, or womens' events? And please don't push people into women's events for identifying as a woman; they should be able to choose. This is a thing in chess, for example. Judit Polgar is a woman and a Grandmaster, and she typically chose to compete in open sections, not women's sections. Not everyone is the same. Let people choose where they compete.

Just give people those choices directly, let them pick it instead of assuming from a (woefully incomplete) dropdown other aspects of the user. Let us choose, and don't collect information you don't need, like what my gender is.

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