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How do you ask about someone’s sex on a form?

Have you noticed that just about every online form asks the same questions? You fill in your surname and first name, answer a few questions about your contact information, and somewhere in between you have to fill in your sex. You can choose between ‘male' or ‘female'. But which of the two do you choose if you do not fit in either of those boxes?

At PlayCo, we strive to create a user-friendly experience. We regularly take care of registration forms for our customers. Many have told us that they are getting more and more feedback from users who do not identify with the unilateral representations of gender.

This was reason enough for us to get to the bottom of this issue. Because the last thing you want to do is give new users the feeling that they do not fit in with your organisation.

Sex and gender are not the same

At the moment, most forms require users to fill in their sex, which can be answered with ‘male’ or ‘female’. When asking someone’s sex, you are literally asking, “Which genitals do you have?"

But you can also ask which gender someone identifies with. Because gender and sex are not the same. Having male sex organs does not necessarily mean you identify as a man. Your gender might therefore be different than your sex. And if that’s the case, which box do you tick on forms?

Examples

The well-known toilet symbols

But here you’re actually asking someone who doesn't identify as a man or woman what kind of clothes they wear.

You could approach it like Facebook does

But here, you’re asking what kind of hairstyle a person has.

The Venus and Mars symbols

But even here, we encounter another binary code which is just as inadequate as the other examples. So we should expand this list.

Biologically correct

A more exhaustive list of gender symbols contains 32 options. But that is not a user-friendly way to answer the gender question.

A third option: 'other'

But we’re not really great fans of the term 'other'. The entire point of creating an inclusive environment is lost if we use this one term.

Fill in the blanks

You could even let your users fill in their gender in a third open text field. This is a good option, but it’s not a good way to collect great data.

PlayCo’s recommendation

We always give our customers the following advice:

1. The question

Don't ask for people's sex, but ask for the gender they identify with. People can choose their gender, but not their sex.

2. The answers

We avoid using all possible symbols (which are too binary, too meaningless or too complex). People who don’t identify with the first two options shouldn’t be made to feel different. So, we offer a comprehensive third option that fits in well with a large group of non-binary gender types.

Necessity

But you have to keep asking yourself whether this question is really necessary. Do you really need to know the sex or gender of the users? 

And what do you do with the answers to this question? By coupling preferences and interests to the different sexes or genders yourself, e.g., all men like to drink beer and all women like to go shopping, you won’t get very far.

Only in very few cases does knowing the gender or sex generate added value. If you were asking for marketing purposes, for example, it might be more valuable to ask users about their interests rather than their demographic information.

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