“A Game With Mirrors”

Throughout my grad school experience, from conference registration forms and university-wide surveys to actual grad school applications themselves, I have often run into the following question:


Always making me think: Why is this still a thing?

Okay, certainly there are legitimate reasons to collect demographic information, including information regarding gender. Whether to explore the diversity of the field (i.e. graduate admissions or university surveys) or whether it is needed for grant purposes (i.e. conferences) there are times when inquiring about an individual’s gender identity is reasonable. However, why must this information be collected in such biased fashion?

The fact of the matter is that for many individuals gender is a complicated social construct, with which they have a nuanced relationship. As phrased above, the question “Gender?” takes all of these complexities and nuances and smashes them; smashes them into two extremely narrow little circles. It takes individuals and smashes their agency, forcing them to squeeze themselves into a narrow space predefined by someone else.

Moreover, to some who are “gender-expansive”, this question is yet another instance of someone — a colleague, a peer, a fellow mathematician — neither recognizing nor accepting part of who they are. It is yet another instance in which they are in part invisible:

invisibility may seem like a small price to pay … But invisibility is a dangerous and painful condition. When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you … when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is all a game with mirrors.”

~Adrienne Rich, “Invisibility in Academe” [1]

In short, this question invalidates the feelings and experiences of those who do not find themselves comfortably within the confines of the two narrow little bubbles provided to them.

If I agree there are legitimate reasons to collect gender demographics, and if I find the above format highly problematic, what do I think the answer is? Well I think a better approach is to give agency to the respondents. As the Human Rights Campaign notes the least restrictive and most preferable option is to allow individuals to self-identify. For example, by re-phrasing the question in the introduction as follows:


Doing this empowers the respondent to define their gender identity as they see fit. I should also point out – not that it should matter – that phrasing the question in this way changes little how the question writer interacts with the responses. (Note other parts of academia have already begun moving to eliminate such biased and discriminatory questions.)

Some of you might be wonder why I have bothered spending ~500 words on a topic so “insignificant” as to how to ask someone their gender. The fact of the matter is that these things are not “insignificant” – they matter, and they have substantial effects on the lives and careers of many people. (I am reminded, in part, of the following tweet.) Sure, this might not have an effect on your life, but that does not mean the opening question does not make others feel uncomfortable, outcast, and discriminated against. And to say this is “insignificant” is to say these people are, well, insignificant …

Which is unacceptable. No person is insignificant. No one should ever be made to feel insignificant. No one should ever be … invisible.

For us to create a more inclusive, supportive, and welcoming mathematical community, these are the sorts of things we need to begin to think and care about. We need to stop seeing things like this as “insignificant”. We need to begin to see the world and individuals as they are: complexly. Most importantly, we need to step up and change the ways we act. Changing how we phrase this question is a small first step.


[1] Roberts, T. et al. The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose 2nd Ed. Broadview Press. 2011.

About DJ Bruce

I am a third year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. My interests lie on the algebraic side of things. In particular, I work somewhere in the intersection of algebraic geometry and commutative algebra.
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4 Responses to “A Game With Mirrors”

  1. James Sheldon says:

    You might be interested to know, in terms of related organizations: The American Educational Research Association (AERA), after a number of missteps, just implemented a fill-in-the-blank style textbox for gender on their membership application rather than forcing you to choose from a set of categories.

  2. Stephen says:

    I just think it’s an administrative necessity because not all student names are in English. It would be important to know which pronoun to use in any reports and communications.

    • DJ Bruce says:

      Thanks for commenting Stephen! I completely agree!

      It is essential to know which pronouns one should use when referring to an individual! As one source says, “When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (or, often, all of the above.)”

      That said similar to gender identity, pronouns are something that people have complicated relationships with. (For many pronouns are substantive piece of defining and expressing their gender identity.) Moreover it is not always evident from one’s name or gender identity, which pronouns one prefers. So collecting gender demographics is really not the best way to figure out which pronouns to use. Instead simply ask the respondent what their preferred pronouns are! (Again ideally via a text box type question.)

      Doing this puts the respondent in the driver seat and allows them to express their own agency in the matter. (One of the link in my post talks about the University of Michigan allowing students to do precisely this.)

      For more information and resources on pronouns:

  3. Leigh says:

    I just happened across this blog (because of the excerpt printed in the Feb 2017 Notices) and am glad to see this discussed here. As a transman (I transitioned before even many doctors or health professionals knew what this meant), I experienced a lot of personal frustrations with the binary radio boxes for “sex” or “gender”. And, even now places get this wrong. Two months ago I received a registered letter from an employer, a liberal state public university, which addressed me as “Ms.” instead of “Dr.” or “Mr.”, as would have been appropriate. So, yes, addressing people using the pronouns and gender they are and prefer is the most humane thing to do.

    Gender should be consensual — you cannot force my gender on me no more than I can force you to use correct pronouns. (Though I’m more than happy to stop talking to you if you do not respect me.) So I support the use of a blank box for gender, if that information is necessary. If you just need to know how to address a person in terms of pronouns, ask that question directly.

    You will get better answers if the person answering understands what you really want to know. I have no qualms with writing in my own answers on paper forms, and indeed it is one reason I am still quite a Luddite and usually prefer paper over forced computerized forms.

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