Jul. 7th, 2015

tigerfort: (Default)
This is an improved and much shorter revision of this post. As with that one, this one only attempts to deal with answers for a culturally native-english-speaking audience. Also, if there's something in here that you think is wrong/stupid/hurtful, then (a) I'm sorry, that wasn't my intent, and (b) I'd be very grateful if you feel able let me know, so that I can correct my error (and avoid repeating it).

So: you've got a website/survey/business database/list of supporters/whatever, and you want to ask about the gender and title of address for the people on it.

The simplest solution

Don't. Unless you're my chosen medic discussing treatment options[1] or a sociology researcher (or, ok, working for certain government departments who are legally required to ask[2]), you don't need to ask about my gender. Really, you don't. If I'm signing up to your gardening newsletter, my gender, sexuality, skin colour, eye colour and favourite album are all equally relevant. "Doing it right", in this case, means not doing it at all.

Also, if you don't ask, don't assume. I thought this went without saying, but clearly it doesn't. Assuming a gender based on (say) first name is pretty silly, potentially very offensive, and will not make you any friends.

Titles are much the same; you simply don't need to ask about them. The number of people who will be offended by a newsletter addressed "Dear Subscriber" rather than "[title][name]" is pretty small. We know it's all being done by the computer anyway.

[1] in which case, you probably already know the answer; you also hopefully understand that the physical, neurological, and (most often relevant) biochemical issues are rather more complicated than [M/F: choose one]. But that's beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] our laws on the subject need changing, both because said departments generally don't actually have any need to know and because they're usually only allowed to accept "M" or "F" as an answer. But that's beyond the scope of this essay too.

The simplish solution

If you absolutely have to ask - perhaps you actually are a sociology researcher, and the answers are a major part of your research - then you should provide a free-text write-in for people to put their answers in. If you're going to ask about things that form an important part of people's identities, then you should allow them to give the answer that they think is right. Just let people choose whatever title and gender description they want (including none at all; do not insist that the box have something in it) and everyone will be happy.

Making life hard for yourself

Perhaps you need to ask, but aren't able to allow write-in answers, for some reason. Your boss is allergic to them, or your database system only allows four bits per answer, or something. At this point, there isn't a right answer available to you anymore, but you can at least aim for something that doesn't deny the people's existence.


The absolute bare minimum you should be offering in the way of answers here is a set of four: "Male", "Female", "Other", and "Prefer not to say". (If you're not going to offer "Prefer not to say", because the answer is vital to your research, then please make that clear at the start rather than letting me get all the way through answering your questions before closing the tab/binning the form when I find I can't tick a "none of your business" box. My willingness to complete research surveys has been substantially decreased over the years by having my time wasted like that.)

Note that "Other" and "Prefer not to say" are not the same, and can never be combined. Someone who ticks "prefer not to say" almost certainly self-identifies as something (whether that be M, F, some combination of those, or something else), but doesn't want to tell you what. Someone who ticks "Other" has expressed their desire to tell you that they do not self-identify as binary M or F, and might well have chosen to be more specific if you'd given them the option. If they specified "Other", they explicitly did prefer to say.


If you want to try and produce a drop-menu (or equivalent) of titles for people of all cultures world-wide to choose from: you're either a genius, or going to fail horribly. If you succeed in producing a good one, there will probably be plenty of volunteers to co-sign your Nobel peace prize nomination. To avoid extending the scope of this post far beyond my own knowledge I'm going to restrict myself to dealing with English-language titles. That (hopefully obviously) means that any solution suggested here is only suitable for use in an exclusively anglophone environment; it's going to be automatically inadequate as soon as any other language or cultural group needs to be considered. You may be able to apply the same logic to get something useful for non-english-exclusive groups, but you really want (non-privileged) native speakers to check out whatever you come up with, because honorifics work differently in different cultures.

Here are the two entries your menu absolutely has to have:

  • None of the above

  • Prefer not to say

Ideally, you should also offer "No title", but rolling that into "None of the above" isn't entirely unreasonable. As with gender, though, "Other" and "Prefer not to say" need to be kept separate because they're totally distinct concepts. Someone whose marriage is a vital part of their identity may care very much about being addressed as "Mrs", and if you haven't given them that option, then "Prefer not to say" is just as wrong (and thus just as insulting) as a forced choice of "Mr" or "Ms".

You then need a list of titles that includes as many people as possible but is still short enough that "none of the above" replaces a large number of unusual titles rather than looking targeted. Maybe half a dozen entries, plus "None of the above" and "Prefer not to say" (both of which are likely to get treated as "none" by your mail-merge if there's a mailing list, but that's a separate issue[3]). "Mr" is easy; it probably represents over a third of the population. Cultural issues mean we need at least two entries for women to cover the equivalent space; "Mrs" has no competiton, but does our list take "Ms", or "Miss", or both? I don't know what the usage rates are, but they both seem fairly common, and I know people who are strongly attached to each one. If we take both, we've used four of our six spaces, so we can only have two more entries. A little quick research suggests that the next most widely used title is probably "Dr" (about 1% of the population). "Mx" is a bit trickier; allegedly around 0.5% of the population identify as non-binary-gendered (although I'd expect that number to rise, the way that the proportion of people identifying as non-het has done). While it's unlikely that every non-binary person will select "Mx" from the proposed list, I know a number of definitely binary people (mostly women) who do use it for preference, to avoid giving information about their gender. So 0.5% doesn't seem an unreasonable guess for that one. I'm not aware of any other title that comes close to covering that high a proportion of the population

That's six. While "Dr" covers quite a lot of people, I think it's the one I'd be happiest to lose; it's the only professional title on the list, apart from anything else.

So I think the bare minimum that's acceptable (if you must ask for a title) is:

  • Miss

  • Mr

  • Mrs

  • Ms

  • Mx

  • None of the above

  • Prefer not to say

I'd likely be happier if you added "Dr", but I do feel it's a bit the odd one out. And again, I don't think that's a perfect solution; it's a basic minimum I think people should be held to account for not meeting. Much better to allow free text (remembering to allow the box to be empty, because some people feel very strongly about not using any title[4]), or simply not ask.

[3] If you plan to argue in the comments that it's ok to combine them in the form if you're going to handle them the same way in code, please go back and read the bits about them being psychologically different and how the goal here is to avoid giving offence, because you seem to have missed the point.

[4] I suspect I come into contact with a disproportionate number of such people - both Quakers and those opposed to titles for other reasons. But I confess I've not actually made any attempt to find out what proportion of the total population they are, and if anyone has good numbers I'd be interested to see them. (Notably, in assuming that my experience is disproportionate, I've discounted "No Title" from the list of the six most-common titles, and if that's wrong, I should correct it.)

ETA: [personal profile] pseudomonas has a useful short form letter explaining this here. The UK government guidelines can be found here and there's also a discussion about the reasoning behind them. There's also some commentary from the sociology department at Stanford University here.


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