By Taylor Majewski

February 12, 2020

Why Non-Binary Tech Workers Remain Skeptical of the Online Adoption of Gender-Neutral Pronouns

“There's not a man I meet but doth salute me, As if I were their well-acquainted friend,” William Shakespeare wrote, over 400 years ago in A Comedy of Errors.

Grammarians will note Shakespeare’s use of the singular “they.” It’s the type of “they” that doesn’t specifically refer to a man or woman, but instead replaces “he” or “she” with irrelevance. While this “they” has origins as early as the late 1300s, the pronoun was named Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019, defined as “a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary” or “a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed.”

Why and how did “they” collect currency in 2019? #

According to Merriam-Webster, searches for the word “they” increased by 313% over the previous year. The pronoun also gained momentum among policymakers as nonbinary teenagers pushed for driver’s licenses that reflect more gender identities. But the wave of proposed gender-neutral legislation is slow-moving, held up by a bureaucratic binary system, generational divides, and partisan lines.

On a more fundamental level, the surge in popularity around “they” is a response to changing times. According to Pew Research Center, one-in-five U.S. adults personally know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun. Survey data also suggests that more and more Americans will become more gender literate within the coming years.

Certain politicians are already endorsing this attitude—a number of Democratic presidential candidates list their gender pronouns in their Twitter bios. While this could be perceived as an overt exertion of political correctness, which it is, it’s also a sentiment echoed throughout user profiles on Twitter en masse.

Folks of all gender identities have taken to Twitter to share their pronouns in their bios, a trend that took off with little to no initiative from Twitter itself. Twitter is a gathering place for public discourse, and people simply want to normalize the idea that everyone should lay bare their pronouns out of respect for those who use non-standard pronouns.

“It’s a social phenomenon amongst people,” said Rowan Rosenthal, a product designer who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “When straight, cis-gender people started doing that, I thought that was really cool because it was a show of allyship in a lot of cases. I know that it’s also controversial because some people view it as virtue signaling in some ways, but I think it’s nice [for nonbinary and transgender people] because you’re not outing yourself by having your pronouns in your bio.”

Rosenthal used to work at OkCupid, where they created the feature that lets users define their own pronouns. It was the first project of its kind from a mainstream dating app; historically, users would just include their pronouns in their bios on dating apps and social media sites due to a lack of better options.

More tech companies followed OkCupid’s suit in attempts to become more gender-inclusive #

In 2019, Bumble rolled out an extensive list of gender options and the ability to choose whether or not you want to show your gender identity to potential matches. Instagram added a custom field to its gender options, which previously only included male, female and “not specified.” Slack now lets workspace owners and admins add a custom profile field for people to select their preferred pronouns, but employees still need to ask their admins to do this if it’s not prioritized. Lyft also added gender-neutral pronouns to its app, where drivers can see rider’s preferred pronoun but not vice versa.

In introducing these new features, many companies partner with LGBTQ+ organizations to better understand the needs of different people across the gender spectrum. For example, Tinder teamed up with multiple LGBTQ+ organization to roll out “More Genders” in 2016. Since then, 80 million matches have been made among those that have activated the feature, but the company has consciously been slow to release the functionality on a global scale. “More Genders” is only available in eight countries today, whereas Tinder’s app is available in over 190 countries.

“We want to make sure we’re rolling it out ‘on the ground’ and typically with an LGBTQ-focused organization because, ultimately, we aren't the local experts on culture or gender,” Tinder’s Director of Communications, Evan Bonnstetter, told me. "I live in Los Angeles and the diversity of this city is reflected on Tinder. But in other cities, you may not be exposed to the same diversity. As an app for everyone — that's used everywhere — we definitely take this into account."

Tinder** **hasn’t tackled gender pronouns yet, which Bonnstetter told me was because it’s not particularly relevant to the one on one interactions that you have on Tinder. However, addressing non-standard pronouns more directly is definitely not off the table for Tinder. I thought back to my conversation with Rosenthal, where they told me about all the misgendered “hey girl” DMs they receive on dating apps.

It’s worth noting that more than half of Tinder’s users are between 18 and 25, an age group representative of the more open-minded and gender fluid Generation Z. According to Pew, 59 percent of Generation Z say that “forms or online profiles that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than ‘man’ or ‘woman’” and about half of both Generation Z and millennials agreed that “society isn’t accepting enough for people who don’t identify as a man or a woman.”

When tech moves faster than the law #

A continuous theme that came up in my conversations with nonbinary people for this story was the idea that online efforts to make the world more inclusive don’t necessarily translate to the lived experience offline.

“I feel so cynical about pronouns being added to rideshare and social media apps because I always customize them, and no one ever uses them anyway,” says Isabel Lee, a product designer and software engineer who uses they/them pronouns. “I’ve never had people use my gender and pronouns unless I verbally tell them.”

Most often, this comes up for Lee on dating apps, where they said they either have to hide their gender in order to not “freak people out” or be explicit about gender on the apps to avoid explaining their gender in person.

Rosenthal also experienced this online to offline disconnect when they used the medical booking service ZocDoc to schedule a hormone appointment with an Endocrinologist. At the actual appointment, the doctor’s office addressed them by their legal name because there wasn’t a form field for any other option.

“It was such cognitive dissonance — this was a trans appointment and they were calling me by my legal name,” said Rosenthal. “It was so frustrating to deal with that in person.” Today, Rosenthal advises other startups on how to address gender identity and pronouns. Typically, they advise companies to not collect gender at all. If the company does decide to collect gender information from users, a safe route includes options for males, females, nonbinary people, as well as a fill in the blank option.

Deep-rooted, societal barriers that affect the lived experience of nonbinary people also extend to how old technological systems were set up. As Meredith Broussard wrote in her *Slat*e piece on the subject, binary code — meaning the system that powers computers — won’t accommodate nonbinary people. What does this look like in practice? Facebook’s software seems to allow users to self-identify, but the way the system actually records the data (which is ultimately sold to advertisers) names each user as male, female or null.

Both Rosenthal and Lee speculated, given their experience working at startups, that the time and investment it takes to overhaul a backend may not necessarily be prioritized in the name of gender inclusivity.

“You would have to rebuild and re-architect a lot of what’s already there,” said Rosenthal. “That’s obviously a huge investment. It’s hard to say we should rebuild this whole thing for this small demographic of people, even though it’s obviously really important. From a business standpoint, the impact is small.”

From Tinder’s perspective, the effort and resources are worth it, if not crucial to growing the business.

"For us, it’s more about doing the right thing than a bottom line for the business,” said Bonnstetter. “The majority of are members are Gen Z,  so our membership grows naturally because people turn to us when they start to explore dating. But at the end of the day, that’s not the main reason we’re doing this. Our ultimate goal is that people like being on Tinder and feel welcome.”

As the tech industry has proven time and time again, it moves faster than the law. It shapes and changes culture before regulators can blink. But when it comes to the mass adoption of gender-neutral pronouns, the tech industry seems to be treading at a slow, cognizant clip.

This might be because culture is self-regulating in this case; widespread acceptance of the gender spectrum is going mainstream independent of the relatively modest efforts made by Big Tech. But the way online experiences shape the offline experiences for those who use non-standard pronouns bears room for improvement, possibly because the majority of people shaping the decisions around these online experiences go by “he” or “she.”