Should Gender Be a Nonrequired Field?

application form
Form-filling 101.

Photo by webphotography/iStock/Thinkstock

Imagine you are filling out a form. You begin by inputting your name and date of birth, but then you come across this:

Please select your species.*
*Required Field

Neither of these options applies to you, but … it’s a required field. What do you do? You need to submit the form in order to continue, but neither of the available choices accurately reflects your identity. Whoever designed this form obviously seems to think that every person is either a turtle or a duck.


Maybe you would just pick one in order to continue. You might choose randomly or perhaps decide you feel more like one than like the other. If the answers are nonsense, then the question can’t be that important, right?

Actually, no. If you happen to be applying to the government, or to a bank, or for credit, you’ll likely be confronted by these words: It is a crime to knowingly submit false information. This would be a pretty major problem for anyone who is neither a turtle nor a duck. Lobsters and squirrels need not apply. Is the service only open to turtles and ducks?


This situation might seem silly to you. Most people never run into a problem like this. However, a growing segment of the population must deal with it almost every day of their lives.


When a form asks you to specify gender, M and F are almost always the only options given. Try to imagine what it must be like for somebody who lives with a gender identity that falls outside male and female. It’s painful. It’s discriminatory. Fortunately, there is a very easy and inexpensive solution to this problem.

What if, wherever Gender or Sex appears on a form, whether in print or online, it were designated Not a Required Field?

This one simple change will let businesses completely eliminate a potential human rights discrimination issue and help to ensure that processes and organizations remain inclusive of persons of any gender identity (and not just the two most common ones).

“OK,” you might say, “but I’m a marketer, and gender is my most valuable demographic segmentation.”


This is a common reaction among marketers, and understandably so. Consumer information is a commodity, and records are more valuable when they are more complete. If you, or your clients, execute gender-segmented marketing campaigns, then any consumer record without a gender designation is one fewer target. Ultimately, this translates into fewer leads—or so goes common wisdom.


On the other hand, consider the types of consumers who would actually choose to opt out of gender collection if the option is given. Such consumers fall into two categories:

1) Privacy-minded consumers who only ever give the minimum information required when registering. These consumers are defined by their tendency not to respond favorably to direct marketing, and after receiving your campaign, they will commonly exercise their right to opt out of future communications. By omitting these people from your gender-segmented campaigns, you are saving on postage without harming your response rate at all—in fact, your response rate percentage will rise, and so will your return on investment.


2) Transgender and gender-variant consumers. While it is fair to say that most people are completely comfortable with choosing either M or F on a form, there are some consumers who are alienated by the nature of the question. Transgender persons who are still in transition might identify between M and F, or they might just prefer not to specify. For genderqueer persons, who might identify completely outside M and F, there is no appropriate box to select here. Such consumers will either decline to enroll in your program, in which case you lose out on the consumer record entirely, or they will begrudgingly select a gender designation that does not accurately reflect their identity. In addition to generating ill will toward your brand, this leads to wasted expenditure, because you’re including people in your gender-segmented direct marketing campaigns who will not respond favorably.

By treating gender as an optional field, you will capture additional consumers whom you had missed previously. Furthermore, you will improve your response rates to gender-segmented marketing campaigns by gaining a method to exclude a segment who wouldn’t respond. Simultaneously, you will build your brand reputation with LGBTQ communities. And of course, even those consumers who opt out of gender designation will still qualify for marketing campaigns that aren’t gender-segmented. It’s a win-win proposition.

See Christin Scarlett Milloy’s website for practical advice about gender collection in forms and databases