How to make content gender inclusive

Guest author, , Inclusive design

This guest blog post is written by Dana Rock. Dana is a specialist in experience design and focuses on inspiring and enabling others to achieve their potential.

Gender and inclusive content

As content designers we are used to thinking about our users. We are pretty good at understanding people’s functional needs. But it’s easy to overlook the emotional needs we all have. Designing inclusive content is important because subtle signs can make us feel welcome or unwelcome. Is this product for me? Do I belong here?

There are lots of ways in which feeling included can play out. In this blog, we’ll focus on things we can do to make our content inclusive for people of all genders.

Use gender neutral language

Most of us are now familiar with using gender neutral terms when referring to people’s professions, for example ‘firefighter’ or ‘police officer’.

Equally, let’s switch out the slightly less obvious, but still highly gendered, terms such as ‘man-made’ or ‘to man’ a kiosk for neutral alternatives like ‘artificial’ or ‘to staff’.

Some people might consider such attention to detail to be ‘political correctness gone mad’. But these simple changes shift the default. They let us move our language away from historically imbalanced power structures to a place where more people feel welcome.

Many words also have implicit gender associations. Imagine a ‘breadwinner’ - what comes to mind? Our first reaction may be to imagine a man. When we think consciously and critically about the word ‘breadwinner’ then the word can be applied equally to anyone who earns money to support their family. But like the music of our teenage years, our language has absorbed meanings over time which we cannot easily wring out.

Research shows that even those with deeply held views about gender equality, for example feminist activists, will still more quickly link words which align with traditional gender stereotypes (Read: Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender). Taking an implicit association test can highlight the hidden shortcuts our minds hold between, for example, families and females and careers and males. This is the ‘fast’ way in which our mind works.

As content designers, it’s useful to slow down our thinking when we review our copy. This is particularly important for things like recruitment. Remember the story about the Amazon recruitment algorithm which read applicants’ resumes and favoured men for technical roles? Amazon edited the programme so it was neutral to the applicants’ declared gender, for example ‘women’s chess club champion’ was neutral. But the algorithm continued to select applicants based on the language they used; it picked up that men were more likely to use words like ‘execute’ and ‘capture’.

It works the other way too: words with gender associations may deter some people from applying for jobs. Are you looking for a ‘confident and decisive’ candidate? Research has shown that job adverts with words with strong male associations are off putting to female applicants. Some people might feel like it’s not for them and rule themselves out of applying, even while not being consciously aware of it.

You can use a gender decoder to check for the perceived gender balance in your copy. This tool has its faults, for instance it does not consider non-binary people. But I find it a useful tool to evaluate my copy and reflect on how the language choices I have made may be perceived by different people.

Slow down your thinking and ask yourself: is this content for everyone?

Welcome those who might feel excluded

While mostly it’s best to avoid gendered language, occasionally you will want to explicitly welcome people who might otherwise feel that what you are offering is not for them.

Are dads invited to the new parents’ group? Are trans women okay to sign up for the women’s career development programme? Will non-binary people feel part of any event which welcomes ‘ladies and gentlemen’?

If you are used to having the door held open for you, you might not realise that there is a door. Or that the door is a barrier to other people. Bear in mind that some people in minority genders will have experienced active exclusion and so may be much more hesitant to join the party.

You don’t need to write a list. My favourite example of how to include people is Nottingham’s Women in Tech group who simply state ‘all genders are welcome.’

Call me by my name

Personalised content can be a powerful way of connecting with your audience. But it can also backfire. One easy way to improve your chances of getting it right is by calling people by their name. That is, the name they call themself.

Vicky might find the formality of Victoria distancing. But in the trans community, using someone’s birth name (even if it is still their legal name) can be hurtful, triggering and in some instances could put them at risk if the content is visible to others. That is not the powerful impact you want your personalised content to have.

If you are not signing a legal document, do you need to use someone’s legal name? To make your content inclusive to all, use preferred names wherever possible and make it easy for people to change their name if they need to.

Think about how you gather people’s names on your online forms. Forms are very… formal. So people may feel like they need to put their legal name. Make it easier for people: ask for ‘preferred name’ or state ‘name, as it appears on your ID’.

Create gender inclusive forms

Filling in a simple online form can be a stressful experience for people who don’t, quite literally, fit the box. We’ve already talked about names. As a non-binary person, I have found that there are two other fields which can be particularly troublesome: gender and titles.

If you are designing a form then first of all ask yourself: do you really need this information? If you are not gathering the information for statutory purposes, or to add value to your users, then remove it.

Do you need to use a title? In some instances, such as academia and the military, titles denote expertise or rank so you may want to include them. If you do, then add ‘Mx’, the gender neutral title, to your dropdown list or make the question optional.

What do you eat for breakfast?

[ ] Cereal
[ ] Fruit

The list of options is not comprehensive. What if you eat toast? This is how many people feel when faced by a binary choice of ‘male’ or ‘female’.

You might think having a list with more options would solve the problem. But tacking on ‘toast’ still doesn’t work for those who eat eggs or who don’t eat in the mornings. Avoid having a third box labelled ‘other’ because it gives a sense of dismissing anyone who identifies outside of the gender binary. Some people are more likely to choose ‘non-binary’ to describe themselves. But ideally you want to use the language of your users.

The 2021 UK census gathered gender information. In addition to ‘male’ and ‘female’, people could opt to self describe using a free text box. This is a reasonable solution because it allows people to choose what is right for them. It also lets you learn the language of your users. You can make the data gathered from the free text box meaningful by using common programming tools, such as regular expression. This allows you to group together similar terms without depending on spelling or punctuation; for example, one person may have entered ‘non-binary’ and another person may have entered ‘non binary’ (without the hyphen).

If you’ve already gathered data about your users in the free text box then you could then use this to inform future iterations of your form, by adding the most common expressions as options while continuing to keep the free text option.

Consider whether the options on your forms are mutually exclusive. In our breakfast example, you might want to select both cereal and fruit. Equally, someone can describe themselves as both ‘transgender’ and ‘female’ so let your users select more than one option. Finally, add an additional ‘prefer not to say’ option or make the question optional.

Further reading/viewing

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