Why I want to make my gender private on Google+
*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.