I Am Tired of Hearing Programmers Defend Gender Essentialism

One of my ongoing and endless frustrations with web forms is the constant insistence on knowing my gender, particularly on social media. When I discuss this issue with socially progressive programmers, they grind their teeth in solidarity with me and express similar frustrations with the ubiquity of mandatory gender markers on web forms. But when I encounter their brogrammer counterparts, things get more complicated, and even more infuriating.

Mainstream programmers usually have two reasons for defending the use of gender tickboxes on web forms. The first is that they want to know a user’s gender to provide more accurate and better service, a particular issue on a form for any service that includes ads. They wouldn’t want to serve tampon ads to men, for example (because men never have periods, right?). While ad tailoring doesn’t start and end at gender, it can be a good rough tool to start narrowing down which ads are served.

There are, of course, much better ways to refine ad service. For example, programmes like Hulu use an ad rating system to note which ads consumers do and don’t respond to (although I don’t know how reliable this system is because Hulu seems to think I need to quit smoking and feed my dog despite my protests to the contrary). And, of course, though I view them as a gross invasion of privacy and I find them upsetting, I’m well aware that cookies are used to track user activities on websites and they can be used to refine ad service to target audiences effectively; if I’m reading home and garden articles in the New York Times, for example, I can’t be surprised when I start to see ads for gardening supplies on the site, because it’s responding to my user profile.

Okay, but, programmers say, there’s another important reason we can’t do away with the tickbox, allow people to state their own genders, or allow people to decline to state. That’s because they need to know which pronouns to use.

They present this argument with a look of triumph, as though they think this is a mic drop and they can now walk away, ‘conversation’ concluded. Why they think this incredibly gender essentialist, lazy, and fundamentally boring argument is in any way persuasive is beyond me, because it’s not just irritating, it’s also wrong. For one thing, you could easily include a dropdown asking which set of common pronouns the user would prefer, and you wouldn’t even need to demand a gender marker. You could also avoid the use of pronouns altogether, or revert to singular ‘they’ in cases where no gender is provided. All of these tactics are easy to implement, and there’s no reason not to use them, unless, of course, you’re stuck on the idea that gender is a binary, that everyone wants to share information about their gender, and that no one has a complex relationship with gender.

Okay, but, they say, even if we did this, there are languages other than English that are highly gendered, where the gender of a person performing an action can affect conjugations, declensions, and various parts of speech. So we need to know the gender of a user in order to accurately render visible updates like ‘Lise is at the beach with Hans.’

The first part of this claim is correct: it is in fact true that when it comes to gender, English is a highly malleable language, and it doesn’t have the gendering problems that plague some other languages. I don’t need to know the gender of the actor to describe an action, and I can even create a sentence without the use of pronouns if I have to, although it may sound stiff and awkward at times, and may require some verbal gymnastics. Hooray for English.

That doesn’t mean that highly gendered languages are bad and should feel bad, it’s simply a reflection of the incredible diversity in spoken languages around the world. Which, when you think about it, is actually pretty awesome. But here’s the thing: real people actually live and work and act and do things in countries and regions where these languages are spoken. And some of those people, I can guarantee you, are members of gender and sexual minorities who have been thinking about the gendering issue, because it troubles them to be working within the framework of a gendered language.

And those people are working on solutions. Some of them are clunky. Some of them are in formative stages. Some of them are appearing in the form of minority linguistic movements that are working to rethink gendering and language. And those people would be good people for programmers to talk to, to find out what is possible and what is not, and to work together on solutions for the gendering issue. Ultimately, some languages may indeed be impossible to work with without engaging in some gender essentialism, but programmers might be surprised if they actually bothered interacting with activists who are working on this issue. If they did, they might learn that gendered language doesn’t always have to be gendered, and that there are many people out there right now who are eager to change the way language is used.

I’m tired of hearing mainstream programmers engage in and defend gender essentialism. I thought they loved challenges and puzzles and unique situations that pushed their skills to the limit. I didn’t realise they were lazy, uninspired, and determined to uphold the status quo.