28th March 2023
Inclusive Pronouns - a discussion
Respect for user preferences and privacy
Cursor Curated Issue 14
Anna Westlake, Bethan Vincent, Jen Harrison & Sean Drury
The question of whether businesses should ask for pronouns or inquire about an individual's gender is a complex one with various considerations, including both privacy and inclusivity.
In this issue, our team explores different viewpoints around this topic and why designers, developers, site owners, and users all have a role to play in ensuring that user preferences are respected and inclusivity is prioritised.
In conversation with:
Founder and Managing Partner of Open Velocity, a marketing strategy consultancy. Throughout their career, Bethan has worked closely with product and engineering teams to craft better digital experiences. Bethan’s preferred pronouns are they/them.
Front end developer for Cursor. Previously a content designer, Sean has experience of crafting copy and designing user interfaces and experiences with a diverse audience in mind. Sean’s preferred pronouns are he/him.
Graphic designer at Cursor, with a particular interest in user experience. Jen is passionate about inclusivity, in all its meanings, within the forum of digital products. Jen’s preferred pronouns are she/her.
Works in Cursor’s operations team. Her background is in theatre and performance, and she is interested in how inclusivity considerations can differ depending on industry sector. Anna acted as chairperson for this discussion, and her preferred pronouns are she/her.
Q1. Is it necessary for businesses to request pronouns or ask about an individual's gender?
"I think it's firstly important to recognise that there is legislation, as well as Data Protection to consider. Some of the protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act are classified as special category data under GDPR. These include race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. They may also include disability, pregnancy, and gender reassignment in so far as they may reveal information about a person’s health. Given the potential risks to fundamental rights, it is important that businesses approach data collection with care, even if you personally don’t think it is particularly sensitive. Therefore if you don’t need it, perhaps consider not asking for it from a risk aversion perspective. However, I also understand why the information is important and useful to organisations looking to provide the best user experience and better understand their audience.”
“In my opinion, how the question is posed is key to whether businesses should request gender or pronouns. Providing an option to fill in this information and explaining its purpose can improve the user experience, such as in direct marketing or communication. However, individuals should have a choice in sharing this information, especially if it's not necessary for the service or product. I'm uncertain of what situation would make it vital to know someone's gender or pronouns. Offering an optional field can make people who are not comfortable sharing their gender or pronouns feel less pressured to do so.”
"In general, the key rule should be “if you don’t need to know, don’t ask.” Asking for gender or pronouns is only necessary if it's required for providing different services to individuals with different genders, and why would you do that? However, organisations may find it useful to know the demographics of their audience to address any issues in catering to a particular audience. So, it can be asked in good faith, but it's important to go about it in the right way.”
"I've heard that data where gender is not specified is presumed to be male because that's the default assumption in society. This leads me to question if we're losing information that would be useful and silencing voices by assuming no gender. This is especially true in a technology environment where the default assumption is male. I'm curious to know what others think about this?”
“Personally, I need to address that I'm still learning about gender identity terms, figuring out what the correct terminology might be. As a middle-aged mother, I'm trying not to make mistakes when it comes to this topic, especially since my teenage children are very knowledgeable about it and often correcting me. I believe it's something you learn by doing, and if you don't have the opportunity to do so, it takes longer to learn. However, I do wonder if, because it's becoming a more prominent topic of discussion, the default assumption that everyone is male unless they state otherwise will change over time.”
“In my opinion, the default assumption that everyone is male is still prevalent in society and you can see this in various areas of life. Specifically, in the region where we work, particularly in online forms, the default option is usually male, followed by female and then other options. Additionally, I came across an article that stated that Facebook, when they first introduced non-binary pronouns, may have added new options on the website but stored them as male, female, or null in their internal systems, which eliminates important nuances. I'm not sure if this is still the case, but we should definitely seek to avoid that kind of data erasure.”
Q2: How important do you think it is for software platforms to provide gender-neutral pronoun options?
“As someone who prefers to specify using pronouns and self-declare, I think it's important to recognise that gender is not just male, female, or non-binary, but also a spectrum. I believe that a free-text field is the most progressive option for allowing people to self-identify, but it's important to ask why this information is being collected and what it will be used for.”
“I agree with Bethan that having a classic "other" box is inappropriate and a free-text field is better, as people can type in how they would like to be identified. A tick box for every option would be too long and could vary depending on culture and geography. It's important to be transparent about why this information is being collected and give people the choice to disclose it or not.”
“I believe a free-text field is a good option, but it does come with limitations such as misspellings and data pollution. It's important to guide people towards consistent options without constraining them.”
“On the subject of addressing people correctly, titles, in my opinion, are outdated and frankly culturally weird to ask for in the 21st century. I often put something ridiculous like "The Right Honourable" instead of Mr or Mrs. I believe that people should be allowed to specify their name but also update their name within systems. Instead of focusing on titles, organisations should pay more attention to whether their system has the potential to deadname a user.”
“I agree titles are inappropriate or obsolete. We absolutely need to be more inclusive in our approach to how we address people. I wonder if we need a title at all. What is wrong with using a name, whether that's the name you were given at birth or a name that you've chosen on your journey? If that's what you're comfortable with, then that is what people should be using.”
“The only justification for it is if you’re going to use titles to address someone in a letter. However, it is something that feels very outdated. Asking for someone’s gender doesn’t even have that justification, as it wouldn’t affect how you address them. I believe that collecting pronouns is still the best way to approach this issue. You should also consider adding an option for users to choose not to disclose certain information about themselves. Most forms provide a "prefer not to say" option, which allows individuals to opt out of providing certain details that they may not feel comfortable sharing. This way, they can still use the service or access the information they need without having to be on record for something they don't want to disclose. It's important to give users the autonomy to make that decision for themselves.
However, it’s important to consider that while it may not provide any specific details about the user, choosing "prefer not to say" is still a telling selection as it reveals that the user has made a conscious decision to withhold information, indicating that the question or topic at hand is likely sensitive or private to them”
Q3: Whose responsibility is it to ensure users' preferences are respected, the developers, the client or both?
“In my opinion, it's partly my responsibility as a designer and developer to ensure that user's preferences are respected. If the client hasn't brought it up, it's my job to point it out as a consideration and present a case for including it. However, I can't force people to include these things in their products if they're not interested, but I can initiate the discussion and let them know why it should be included. I do think it's really important for clients to have the courage to modernise their views and be open to change. As designers and developers, we often come across existing forms or older sites that might not be inclusive or respectful of different gender identities. It's our job to bring this to their attention and suggest more inclusive alternatives. For example, there's no need to ask for gender as male or female when it's not necessary information. By making these changes we can create a better experience for all users, and that's ultimately what we strive for as designers and developers.”
“From my point of view, it's important to only ask for gender or pronoun information if it's necessary, or if you do need to ask, to make it clear why you're asking and how you plan to use the information. As a developer or development agency, it's part of our job to know about these issues and advise the client on the best way to address them. LinkedIn is a great example of a company that has done it right. They now allow users to self-specify their preferred pronouns on their profiles, and it's prominently featured. The best part is that the majority of users have adopted this feature. Although it may not have been easy to implement, it's a small change that takes up minimal space on a profile, but it means a lot to users who appreciate being able to present their identity as they wish on a professional platform.”
“I agree that LinkedIn is a great example of a company that has done it right. I also think that in the online space, online dating companies are often leaders in this area, with OKCupid being a good example of a platform that offers options for pronouns, gender identity, and sexual orientation. I believe they offer both tick-boxes and free text fields, which provide users with more flexibility and choice.”
At Cursor, we believe that the question of whether businesses should ask for pronouns or inquire about an individual's gender is a multifaceted one that requires careful consideration.
While collecting this information can be helpful in creating a better user experience, we understand the importance of approaching data collection with sensitivity and giving users the choice to disclose their preferences. As designers and developers, we acknowledge our role in advising clients and suggesting more inclusive alternatives to existing forms or older sites.
By having open conversations and actively considering the needs of diverse communities, we can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all.