If you’ve ever filled out a survey at Stanford, you’ve probably answered the demographic question: “What is your gender?”
You’ve most likely seen two boxes, one labeled “male” and the other “female.” You’ve probably answered the question, finished the demographics section and submitted your response. The day goes on.
The way we attempt to box in gender identity using this question is a dated way of thinking about gender. Rhetoric that men are aggressive, dominant and assertive, while women are submissive, communal and sweet is old-fashioned and downright inaccurate.
We can’t continue to overlook the fact that there are more differences within a gender than across genders. In fact, in psychology research combining the data and findings of 13 separate studies studying a total of over 13,000 individuals, a large majority of the significant gender differences between men and women disappeared in the final results. The findings of that meta-analysis point to only a few concrete differences between men and women — average height and shoulder breadth, for example.
Given these findings, rethinking how and why we ask the “gender” question is important for making our research scientifically relevant. By asking questions that acknowledge the complexity of gender, we can help survey-makers better understand their audiences, open the door to more complex analysis and give gender minorities the representation they have almost always been denied.
A problem that many of those involved in surveying this data have acknowledged is that simply asking “male or female?” isn’t enough. One increasingly common “solution” is making dropdown boxes marked “male,” “female” and “transgender” — but transgender is not a gender so much as it is an indication of movement between genders. Another attempt at accepting nonbinary genders has been to delineate a box for “other” – but “other” only tells you what someone is not, not what they are. Facebook’s list of gender identities is a promising option, but making fifty different options for your dropdown box is often inefficient and unwieldy.
One option is to be more transparent about what we’re studying, and acknowledging that sometimes the gendered question isn’t even necessary. If we’re studying sexual health, ask about vaginas and penises, about periods and duration of erections instead of the more nebulous “do you identify as male/female?” Understanding that gender is often decoupled from certain physical characteristics makes studies more transparent and also includes nonbinary or gender-nonconforming people in rhetoric and data.
I do not imply that we cannot ask about gender, or that studying gender is fruitless. Instead, I argue that given our current understanding of the complexity of gender, the more subtle ways in which society enforces gendered norms, and the vastness of gender identity, the question “are you male or female?” just isn’t enough. Conceptualizing gender as a simple binary is an unhelpful way of thinking of people, and is a poor scientific practice — in fact, it’s become normal for scientific studies to measure gender using instruments like 92-question surveys and 10 different scales. Gender is complex.
But often times the question of “male or female?” seems far more innocuous. Often times it’s an inconsequential question in a survey sent to your student group, or might even be automatically generated by your survey maker. In most of these cases, the best way to deal with the issue of gender is to not even include the question at all.
Knowing someone’s gender identity shouldn’t be important in estimating how many sandwiches to buy for an event, or gathering data on how many phones people have had over their lifetimes, or collecting club fees from members. When knowing someone’s gender identity is necessary, like for example in a Town Hall meeting studying gendered issues, asking gender is as simple as including a blank fill-in-the-blank box on forms.
While gender has been a historically-common demographic question, asking it as a choice between two binary options leaves much to be desired. We should move from unquestionably asking “male or female?” to a more nuanced interaction with gender and gender identity, one that acknowledges the complexity of gender. It’s time to move past binaries, time to deconstruct exactly what we mean and want when we ask, “What is your gender?”
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.