Gender Is Harder Than You Think

From IIW

Gender Is Harder Than You Think

Wednesday 7J

Convener(s): Annabelle Backman

Notes-taker(s): Annabelle Backman & Alan Viars

Tags for the session - technology discussed/ideas considered:

Discussion notes, key understandings, outstanding questions, observations, and, if appropriate to this discussion: action items, next steps:

1. Notes from Annabelle Backman:

What is Gender Identity?

  • Gender identity is the innate sense that you are male/female/bigender/etc.
  • Everybody has one!
  • Huge spectrum of identities beyond male/female (e.g., bigender, agender, genderqueer, non-binary, etc.)
  • There is no gender identity taxonomy
    • Terms are being coined and redefined all the time
    • Meanings are subjective, fluid

Why is Gender Hard?

“Legal” Gender
  • This doesn't exist! There is no one notion of legal gender in most jurisdictions.
  • Consider: Driver's License, Birth Certificate, Social Security, Passport, etc.
    • All of these are independent, disconnected systems, run by different agencies
    • Rules vary across agencies and jurisdictions
      • for what can go on them (e.g., M, F, X)
      • and how to change them (e.g., requires court order, letter from doctor, etc.)
  • Rules are changing over time:
    • Example: as of Oct. 1, 2019, Rhode Island allows X on birth certificate

“Biological” Sex or Gender
  • Also doesn't exist, at least not in the way most people think!
  • Chromosomal combinations other than XX/XY exist, and XX/XY don't always result in what people typically think of as female/male
  • Hormone levels often matter much more than chromosomes, and these can be altered by medication
  • Significant variants in anatomy exist, and anatomy can be surgically altered
  • Secondary sex characteristics vary wildly, within and across ethnic groups

  • Individual self-identification can change over time.
  • Self-identification can depend on context, e.g., a transgender woman may present female at home and in their personal life, but male at work because they have not come out at work yet (and may never will).
    • "Coming out" is a continuous process, repeated in various contexts and as new people are met.
  • Gender on legal documents may or may not be updated, depending on an individual's ability to meet the jurisdiction's requirements, and depending on whether the jurisdiction allows the individual to identify in an accurate fashion.

What to Do?

Do You Need It?
  • Often gender is used as a proxy for something else. E.g., whether or not the person should be asked if they could be pregnant before prescribing medication. Consider eliminating the proxy.
    • E.g., Are you capable of becoming pregnant?
  • Be wary of "side-channels" for gender
    • Asking for a title such as Mr. or Ms.
    • Inferring from pronouns used by the individual
    • Inferring from names

  • Let people self-identify whenever possible
  • No taxonomy, so a free text field is important
  • If you need a "computable" value, consider:
    • Do you really need it? (see above)
    • Offer a curated list of values, and a free text field in case an appropriate value isn't available.
    • Nothing others people like asking them to identify as "other"!
    • Consider checkboxes instead of a dropdown menu


  • Asking for pronouns can be good, as long as you need them and aren't using it to infer gender or other properties.
  • Standardization of a set of gender identities is unlikely to be successful
    • Terms are too fluid
    • Lack of trust between tech and gender and sexual minorities
  • A "Best Current Practices" for gender identity collection/interpretation/UX could be a helpful middle ground.
    • Tech, advocacy orgs, and LGBTQ community would all be key stakeholders
    • Don Thibeau: Interested in hosting a conversation toward that at next IIW
  • Tech can’t make the whole world “woke” on gender identity, but BCPs and guidance impacts implementation, increases exposure, helps people do the right thing.

****************** ***************** ******************** *******************

2. Notes from Alan Viars:

General Notes:

  • It was determined it s virtually impossible to create and agree on an enumerated list for gender identity.
  • Facebook got this right after some controversy.  Beyond, male and female, gender identity needs to be free form.

Gender on Facebook:

Select Male, Female Or Custom

IIW29 Wed 7J Gender Is Harder Than You Think(UPDATED)1of3.jpg

IIW29 Wed 7J Gender Is Harder Than You Think(UPDATED)2of3.jpg

If custom, allow free form text.

IIW29 Wed 7J Gender Is Harder Than You Think(UPDATED)3of3.jpeg

Notes on OpenID Connect Implementation

To emulate this model in OIDC, we could make the following updates to OIDC.

These changes should not break legacy implementations.

  • OIDC to add optional field/claim for "sex" to include values "male", "female", and "other".
  • OIDC to modify gender field/claim to include the new enumerated value "custom".
  • OIDC to add optional field/claim gender_custom_value.  When, gender value = custom, gender_custom_value SHOULD not be blank.m  gender_custom_value is free form text.
  • While pronouns 

Best Practices for Using Sex and Gender in Applications 

  • Avoid collecting sex and gender unless necessary.
  • Instead, ask questions such as:
    • Is there a chance you might be pregnant?
    • Do you have a uterus?
    • Do you have a prostrate?