One Young World
One Young World

Facebook’s ‘other’ gender problem

By Gcobani Qambela

I have always kept the “About” me section on my Facebook very minimal. But recently I decided to update it and fill it up a little. I was shocked when I got to the icon on “gender” to find that it offered only two options for me to choose from and those being either “male” or “female”. Now anyone with a basic understanding of gender discourse will know that there is a massive difference between gender and sex. The World Health Organisation for instance notes that gender “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women” while sex refers “to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women”.

Writing in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Phillip Walker and Della Cook note that the growing failure to distinguish between gender (“an aspect of a person’s social identity”) and sex (“a person’s biological identity”) is an incapacitating failure. Ann-Maree Nobelius of Monash University contends that if you are talking about sex you are talking about “male and female” while if you talking gender then you are talking much wider societal constructions around being “masculine and feminine”. She further argues that “while your sex as male or female is a biological fact that is the same in any culture, what that sex means in terms of your gender role as a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in society can be quite different cross culturally”.

Benjamin Grosser in his paper “How the Technological Design of Facebook Homogenises Identity and Personal Representation” investigates the ways in which the social network promotes a singular identity and the commodification of the individual user. When it comes to gender, Grosser also notes that Facebook only offers two options. He notes “a user can say ‘I am Male’ or ‘I am Female.’ There are no choices to add your own description or to select a catchall alternative such as ‘other’ ”. This has the consequence according to Grosser of excluding people like transgendered people who do not fit within the two Facebook categories. Stryker and Whittle inform us that often transgendered individuals are unsettled with the labels of “man” or “woman”. This means that “someone with a transgender identity lives that identity as strongly as a man or a woman, and, while some might choose to describe that identity as ‘male’ or ‘female,’ others prefer a more complex description. However, Facebook excludes them listing that as part of their user profiles”.

It is important therefore to ask why Facebook would exclude this group of individuals. One of the reasons offered by Grosser is that Facebook by its very nature is inherently “a designed space, and a designed space inherently represents the ideologies of those who designed it”. He notes that “while a demographic analysis of Facebook’s programming staff is not available, we know from more broad analyses that Silicon Valley is primarily run by white men, with a significant underrepresentation from white women and racial/ethnic minority males — especially in positions of mid- and upper-level management”. This means that an industry that is run and managed by a few white men, who do not employ minorities, is less likely to be focused on those minorities. This is thus also important when we look at why Facebook hasn’t fixed its gender problem.

Many people have already complained to the social network about the exclusionary effect of having only two options. Nepal’s first openly gay politician, Sunil Babu Pant threatened to denounce the site if it didn’t allow the users “other” options beyond “male” and “female”. In his letter to Facebook he noted that “people who do not identify as male or female continue to be sidelined by Facebook’s options. As you allow users to identify only as male or female, many in the LGBTI community feel as if they are hidden on the site, unable to identify as their true selves”. Facebook’s response to the letter was that “people can already opt out of showing their sex on their profile”.

Just this past week Facebook was in the news for all the wrong reasons with regards to gender, which ended up with the social network promising to update its guidelines on reporting gender hate on the network. Women, Action and the Media, The Everyday Sexism Project, and author Soraya Chemaly brought the social network to task for not doing enough to remove accounts, images and pages/groups that promote gender-based hate.

I hope as the social network reviews and updates its guidelines on gender-based hate speech, that it will also look at extending its gender options for people who do not identify as “male” or “female”. It is not enough to say that “people can already opt out of showing their sex on their profile” — what about those who want to show it? As Logan Scherer has pointed out, transgender people do not just want to hide or remove gender completely: “Instead of forcing users to choose between male and female and, well, nothing, why not make the category allow users to write in what they want — like the site’s religion category allows them to do. If Facebook really wants to lead a social revolution in the way we define ourselves, then allowing people freedom from a constantly reinforced gender binary might be a good start.” I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Gcobani Qambela is an Anglo-Gold Ashanti (2011) One Young World Ambassador.

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