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Why I want to make my gender private on Google+
tl;dr version:
*I prefer not being searchably female on line. Do you really need to ask why?
*Being female isn’t something I want to bring to people’s attention when they’re thinking about interacting with me, AKA you’re talking to me, not my breasts.
*Non-english languages are hard. If I keep my gender private, warn me, with an explanation, and then use the universal masculine when there’s no good alternative.

Long version: I’m speaking for me, and about my experiences, not for or about women in general.

First, the pragmatic reasons. I’ve had graphic sexual content (text only) involving me sent to me by men I barely knew who had encountered me on-line. In my case, it’s never been ongoing or intentionally threatening. Nevertheless, it’s creepy and unsettling, even when it’s meant as a (misguided, clueless) come-on. I’ve made the choice not going to hide all indicators of my gender as a result -- my name and icon both mark me as female -- but hiding my gender makes me feel a little bit farther away from guys like this.

Then there are the “girl collectors”. I’ve been following the conversations about the gender breakdown of Google+ users, who appears to be only 10% female. There’s more than one comment by guys who are doing things like added every female user Google+ suggests to them, and griping about how few they’ve managed to find. Ick. (Not exactly an example of that behavior, but of the type: +Gina Trapani posted, said “Who is the best tester for telling you whether or not your app's privacy controls make users feel safe? Someone who has been stalked, harassed, or raped. Most of the people who experience that are women. Point: G+ should be field-tested by just as many women as men.” Down at the bottom, there’s the reply “very true... come on girls...add me...start following me ;) ;)” ) I don’t want to be findable by the slimy guy who’s searching every profile for females in his geographical area.

Which leads to the more idealistic reasons. When you click on a profile that hasn’t been filled out, you see name and gender. Sure, I need to know your name to interact with you, but gender? I don’t need to know that, and I don't like the implication that I should. My profile is where I put things I want you to know about me, or things that may help you confirm that you’ve found the right Jessica Polito. My gender shouldn’t be important to my interactions with people. Yes, it can be inferred from my name & profile picture, but forcing me to put it right there, in my profile, makes it something I am pushing to your attention. I don’t want to have to do that.

Language is the one reason why gender might matter. In English, there’s no excuse for using the universal masculine. Use the fairly standard, gender-neutral, singular “they,” and ignore the grammar pedants who value correctness above people’s comfort.

Other languages make it much harder. French and Italian, for example, have no gender-neutral third-person pronoun; “they” comes in masculine and feminine. I'm told that Hebrew forces a gender on “you” as well, and requires gender to conjugate verbs. To say “Pat added you” or “Pat commented on your post,” you need to know and indicate both your gender and Pat’s. Every noun is either feminine or masculine; there’s no alternative. (I don’t know what people who prefer non-gendered address propose doing in these languages.) There are probably convoluted sentences that can get around this. “A comment was added by Sam to Pat’s post” may be expressible in a non-gendered way, but it’s also really clumsy sounding.

So what should Google do if I chose either to not disclose my gender at all, or to not disclose it publicly? Use gender neutral English -- that’s easy. Don’t let my gender leak through language choices. If I have selected female, but kept it locked to some circles, only use feminine pronouns, conjugations, and so on with the people with whom I have shared that information.

Do warn me, using one of those odd floating yellow boxes, that in some languages, masculine terms will be used to describe me, and include a Learn More link that discusses the lack of decent alternatives. Potentially, give the option -- opt-in only -- of linguistically leaking my gender: I prefer not to show it on my profile, but you may use feminine conjugations for me in languages that force gender. But don’t use the language issue as a reason to force my gender to be something I must publicly announce.
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36 comments
 
Doesn't your first name connote "female"?
 
+Adam R Sweet, what on earth makes you think I'm asking you to do anything at all? I'm talking about a Google+ policy that I'd like to see changed. The closest I come is saying "don't send me sexually explicit email, and treat me as a person, not a carrier of breasts." You know, that doesn't seem too hard for the men I know
 
In general, it seems to me like the profile is the weakest part of Google+. Really need to find a few minutes for an ArtOfConv post on this, but they haven't thought through how profiles and circles interact...
 
Came to this post by following links from someone I know in real life. (I.e. +Ken Kennedy -> +Danny O'Brien -> +Jessica Polito). I find it and some of your previous posts interesting. If I add you, it will be to my "Following" circle, because of said interest, and not, uh, for the other, less savory reasons you discuss.

Regards.
 
Hey, I've stumbled upon this post and thought I'd comment as well. As a white mid 20's mostly straight male living in California, I've really never had to deal with much discrimination, stalking, or otherwise unsavory behavior in any systematic way... but still, the instant I filled out the profile and it asked for gender, and only had two choices, I knew google had really made a mistake. I live in Silicon Valley just a few miles from google. I'm familiar with the open attitudes people have around here. And I really thought - wow, google, have you let things just whoosh over your head? Living just a few miles from San Francisco, gender issues are prominent in our daily or at least monthly news cycles and personal discussions. I think many more people in this area are aware of the struggle of LGBT community has to be recognized by society, and the requisite new gender identities that come with that community. So although I don't expect google to have all the options that a site like, say, FetLife has (they have 12), I would expect google to come up with a way of recognizing that there are people who identify in ways other than male or female. All of this on TOP of the very good point you make, which is that some people regardless of gender, would just rather not say.
If they had simply added two more fields: "Other" with a blank text box to be filled out, and "I'd rather not say", they could have at least had a nod to the other genders people identify with. Hell, being google, they could have had fun with it. They could have added "Robot", "Alien", "Android", etc.

So I just wanted to say that all the nay-sayers are lame. You make a great point and I totally agree. It was obvious to me, and considering I live in basically the exact same circumstances as the guys and girls who created google+, I'm really surprised they made this mistake. I hope it gets fixed.
 
+Taylor Alexander actually, they do have "Other", it's one of the positive parts that a lot of people have commended, although a lot of other people think is problematical. My beef is pretty exclusively with the fact that you can't not have it world-readable on your profile.
 
+Taylor Alexander To be fair to Google, they give three gender options: Male, Female, and Other. At the moment, about 2% of Google+ users have selected Other.
 
Oh, was that added after the initial launch? I swore I didn't see that - hence my initial feelings of surprise.
 
And I'm one of the Others, in lieu of "None of your damned business." I thought the whole point of Google+ was that we were supposed to have a choice about how we share information. Guess I was wrong.
 
No, I still think all of this was basically innocent on google's part. I think the launched a giant social network that is more complicated than any other social network was at launch (we're all used to facebook, but it took them years to get where they are), and google basically missed a few things. I think they will come around. There's a reason this is a limited beta. They acknowledge that its not complete. I think it will come around and prove to be the network with real choice.
 
Sigh Do you have any idea how tired I get of seeing women's points of view ignored "innocently" by people who "missed a few things"? How would you view it if Google had a "white" "black" and "colored" option, because it would make a difference in what kind of language the Google+ should use?

No, that's not a perfect analogy. But when you start to categorize people, you'd better make sure that people want to be categorized.
 
Nope, Other's been an option since the day it went public, when I joined and selected it.
 
Eh, I think its a little unfair to call this a women's issue. All users, regardless of gender, are affected by not being able to hide their gender. I understand that that decision effects more women than men, but I do not think that automatically makes it a gender issue, and I think it would be unfair to accuse google of "ignoring women's points of view" in this situation. There are lots of features that got left out for one reason or another, and I don't think those were due to some gender/race/color/creed bias of any kind. I think they just made a massive social network from scratch and forgot to let users hide their gender.
 
Then what is your definition of a gender issue? Something that affects more men than women?

American men--and yes, I'm going to generalize again--can choose to ignore gender in all kinds of contexts because it doesn't affect them. Women generally can't. Male privilege is similar to white privilege.
http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html
...and that's what Google is doing.

I don't want to have to choose to be a man, woman or Other. I don't want to talk with Google about my gender identity at all.
 
+Jessica Polito - Regarding that stat about 10% women on socialstatistics.com, I feel obliged to point out that 1) it is not an official Google site, and 2) it does not track a representative sample of Google+ users. It is an opt-in site run by a third party where you have to add yourself if you want to be tracked. (It may also work if you're added by someone else; I don't know, as I haven't tried this.)

The only way that the stats on that site would be representative of the actual demographics of Google+ users would be if an equal percentage of men, women, and people with other gender identities were willing to be tracked. There are many reasons why this would not be the case, including some of the ones you cited. I wish people would point this out when trotting out that 10% statistic.
 
+Lynette Young and +Steph L Davis - As female "women collectors" on Google+, what is your take on this issue? (Context: they are collecting female G+ users to form networks of female geeks/early tech adopters.)
 
David: I'm glad to hear it. They say the number is "Based on a sample set of 15,693 Google+ Profiles," and I made the (possibly too-generous) assumption that it was done by some sort of randomly walking through Google profiles and screen scaping them. Self selected samples are total garbage.
 
David: Although I didn't get into it, I actually called the type "girl [not women] collectors" on purpose. I find that calling adult women "girls" goes along with looking at us first as sex objects, and only later as, well, people. I have no problem with people who are interested in women's perspectives, particularly in a tech/geek environment.
 
Jess, what would be your ideal solution to this problem? What would be an adequate solution?
 
(Oops.) The google+ problem, not the men-are-slimy problem.
 
I just want to be able to either leave the "gender" field blank, or make it non-public. It's not a solution to the whole problem, just a minor tweak that would make me a little more comfortable. I almost didn't sign up when "gender" was the one question I was asked, and I know several other women who had the same reaction.
 
I think this is a valid concern. Hundreds of years ago, when AOL had all members with profiles, spammers would harvest data there. I used to get tons of porn spam that curtailed quite quickly when I reduced the information on my profile. I was already on lists, unfortunately, so some damage was done. And don't me started on Yahoo.

I don't think your point is that you are trying to be androgynous. You simply don't want to be an easy target for men cruising the platform looking for women to harass. As a father with a daughter, I appreciate the trail you are blazing for those that come after you.
 
Yes, exactly. I don't want to be searchably, harvestably female.
 
It's not just the threat of slimy men. It's the whole concept.
Posted by a friend on Facebook:
"Google+ fail right out of the box: demanding to know my gender. Having an option for "other" does not mitigate the overall offensiveness of the idea that my genitalia are the most important thing about me."
 
+Meg Muckenhoupt - I think that reaction is just a tad over the top. Gender is not the most important thing about anyone. It is just A thing. Facebook asks if we're interested in Men or Women- that can be construed to be offensive as well. The thing to realize is that some people are actually OK with disclosing their gender (and preferences). They prefer it. Just opt out and leave the offended feelings elsewhere. There is no conspiracy.
 
+J Philip Faranda I can't opt out. I'm not allowed to, if I want to use Google+. Yes, i don't want to be searchable, but I also don't want to have the one thing I have to use to describe myself to the world be the face that I'm female -- that's the second part of my post above. I don't want to prevent other people from making gender public, I just want the option of saying it's not what I want the world to see, prominently displayed, about me. Google+ doesn't give me that choice.
 
Nope, which is the core of my complaint. I'd rather be able to opt out of the gender question all together, but if I must answer it, I'd like to be able to make it non-public.
 
FYI, just made an Art of Conversation post about profiles and identity. I'd be interested in getting your take on it, since this discussion was one of the inspirations for it...
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