The Gender Square: A Different Way to Encode Gender

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Image: square with two axes, the horizontal reading Masculine and Feminine and the vertical reading Low Gender Association / Agender and Strong Gender Association

As non-gender-conforming and transgender folks become more visible and normalized, the standard male / female / other gender selections we all encounter in forms and surveys become more tired and outdated. First of all, the terms “male” and “female” generally refer to sex, or someones biological configuration, “including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. Male and female are not considered the correct terms for gender orientation, which “refers to socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. Although sex exists on a spectrum which includes intersex people, gender has a wide range of identities, including agender, bigender, and genderqueer. This gender square method of encoding gender aims to encompass more of the gender spectrum than a simple male / female / other selection.

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Image: triangle defining sex, gender expression, gender attribution, and gender identity

Upon encountering this square in a form or survey, the user would drag the marker to the spot on the square that most accurately represents their gender identity. This location would then be recorded as a coordinate pair, where (0, 0) is the center of the square. The entity gathering the data would then likely use those coordinates to categorize respondents. However, using continuous variables to represent gender identity allows for many methods of categorization. The square could be divided into quadrants, as pictured above, vertical halves (or thirds, or quarters), or horizontal sections. This simultaneously allows for flexibility in how to categorize gender and reproducibility of results by other entities. Other analysts would be able to reproduce results if they are given respondents’ coordinates and the categorization methodology used. Coordinate data could even be used as it was recorded, turning gender from a categorical variable into a continuous one.

Although this encoding of gender encompasses more dimensions, namely representing gender as a spectrum which includes agender identities, it still comes with its own problems. First of all, the gender square still does not leave room for flexible gender identities including those whose gender is in flux or those who identify as genderfluid or bigender. There are a few potential solutions for this misrepresentation on the UI side, but these create new problems with data encoding. Genderfluid folks could perhaps draw an enclosed area in which their gender generally exists, but recording this data is much more complex than a simple coordinate pair, and would become an array of values. People who identify as bigender could potentially place two markers, one for each of the genders they experience. Both this approach and an area selection approach make the process of categorization more complex — if an individual’s gender identity spans two categories, would they be labeled twice? Or would there be another category for people who fall into multiple categories?

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Image: a gender spectrum defining maximum femininity as “Barbie” and maximum masculinity as “G.I. Joe”

Another issue might arise with users who haven’t questioned their gender identity along either of these axes, and may not understand the axes (particularly the Gender Association axis) enough to accurately use the gender square. When implemented, the gender square would likely need an explanation, definitions, and potentially suggestions. Suggestions could include examples such as “If you identify as a man and were assigned that gender at birth, you may belong in the upper left quadrant.” Another option may be to include examples such as in the somewhat problematic illustration above.

This encoding of gender would likely first be adopted by groups occupying primarily queer spaces, where concepts of masculinity, femininity, and agender identities are more prominent and considered. Within queer-centered spaces “current approaches to improving gender and sexual inclusivity on surveys often emphasize increasing the number of possible options that respondents can choose from to describe their identities. Utilizing the gender square would allow for infinite unique gender identities without having to create and label an exhaustive list. If used in places where data on sex and transgender status is vital information, such as at a doctor’s office, then the gender square would need to be supplemented by questions obtaining that necessary information. Otherwise, it is intended for use in spaces where a person’s sex is irrelevant information (which is most situations where gender information is requested).

Although still imperfect, representation and identification of gender along two axes represents more of the gender spectrum than a simple binary, and still allows for categorization, which is necessary for data processing and analytics. With potential weaknesses in misunderstanding and inflexibility, it finds its strength in allowing individuals to more accurately and easily represent their own identities.

data nerd, feminist, occasional writer

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