How to (Not) Ask About Gender

Illustration of person ordering coffee and barista saying "Sure — I just need to know your gender!" Person replies "...for a coffee?"

Transgender issues have been in the media spotlight lately. (If you’ve been able to avoid news of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, we’re impressed!) Like many others, we’re hoping this media attention translates into meaningful awareness of the discrimination and harassment that transgender people often face when seeking access to jobs, schools, housing, and — most relevant to our work — health care.

As health communicators, we have an opportunity to positively influence transgender people’s experience when they seek health information or care. That’s why we’re sharing insights from user experience (UX) designer Kylie Jack’s excellent visual how-to guide for what she calls “gender UX.” It got us thinking that there’s a lot health writers can do — just by changing how we ask about gender.

Whether you’re designing a health app or revising a patient intake form, ask yourself: Why do I need to know this person’s gender? A lot of the time, you actually don’t. That’s great! You can skip that question, and your form will have more white space. Bonus.

If you do need to ask about gender, tailor the question to the reason you’re asking it. If your app just needs to know which pronouns to use, ask directly about pronouns — and remember to include a gender-neutral option like “they.” Or, if your office staff need a title to use on the phone, ask whether the person uses Mrs., Ms., Mr., or a gender-neutral option like Mx. (now sanctioned by the Oxford English Dictionary!).

If you need to know someone’s sex assigned at birth for medical reasons, make it super clear that’s why you’re asking and say you’ll keep it confidential (if you can). For example:

Sex assigned at birth:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Other ______________

This information will help us figure out which screening tests are right for you. We’ll keep it private.

And whenever possible, include an open-text field in your answer options. This guarantees that everyone will be able to answer the question accurately and comfortably. For example:


  • Male
  • Female
  • None or Agender
  • Other ______________

When you ask the right question and provide answer options that work for everyone, you’ll get more accurate information. Most importantly, you’ll make things easier for people who are faced too often with a health care system that isn’t prepared to recognize that they exist — let alone to meet their needs.

The bottom line: Gender is complex — and it can be a sensitive subject. Only ask for the information you really need, and include open-text fields whenever you can.


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