I recently started reading The Mary Sue, which bills itself as “A Guide to Geek Girl Culture” and has a lot of interesting articles about nerdy stuff I enjoy. Some of the content is specifically looking at geek culture through a feminist lens or noting and taking down sexism in the community (Surprise! It’s everywhere!), but a lot is just discussion about Dr. Who and the new Muppet movie. Last week I saw a link to a post promoting a reader survey, and somehow when I read “it’s completely painless” in the article copy I had a feeling that I would click that link and be instantly frustrated by a binary gender option. And yep, that’s what happened.
I left a comment on the article, and later saw that a few other folks had made similar comments, but no one responded there or updated the entry. I sent tweets to their account: the first said “Seriously disappointed that you only have male/female as gender options on the survey” and the second, which I sent the next day as a response to a reminder about the survey, was less friendly: “Can y’all please address the gender issue so your entire audience can feel represented and respected?” I know some companies don’t have frequently-monitored comments or twitter accounts, but someone had cleared out spam in the comments and been very active on the Mary Sue twitter feed that day without responding to the issue, so I was getting pretty frustrated as the day went on.
I went ahead and sent an email that afternoon and it took a while for me to figure out the right balance in my tone – I was feeling frustrated and a bit angry by that point and didn’t want to come off as a jerk, but I didn’t want to apologize for bringing it up either. I eventually came up with something I was happy with and sent it off, although at that time I really had no idea if anyone would respond since my other attempts to communicate with someone at the site hadn’t worked. When I hadn’t had a response by noon the next day I’d mostly given up (this is a site with multiple updates per day and an actual staff, not just one writer), but I did finally hear from the site’s managing editor in the afternoon. Her response was pretty much what’s on the bottom of the original survey post and sounded friendly and not irritated that I’d brought up the issue.
The survey now has male/female/other as options, and… it’s not my favorite non-binary setup but I’ll take it. I’m glad they did respond to feedback and make a change, and it’s much better than the male/female/transgender option that I sometimes see and don’t find very helpful at all. In an ideal world I’d want to set up this sort of question with ticky boxes and lots of options so folks can check off whatever they want, plus an “other” box with a write-in area. Or maybe only a write-in area! That might be the best of all.
I’m still a little frustrated that no one sent a quick response to say “we’re working on it and you’ll see a real response soon,” because I was worried for a while that no one cared about my feedback and I wasn’t sure what my next step could be after sending that email. But overall I’m happy with what happened; I took the initiative to say something and managed to be polite without being apologetic, and something changed because of it. I don’t want to claim to be personally responsible for the survey getting changed, but I was glad to be heard even if I was just one of several people. I feel like usually when I bother to speak up about this sort of thing, or when I hear other folks tell stories about doing something similar, the response is “it’s not a big deal, stop complaining” or “it’s not worth it to make changes that will only impact a tiny number of users.” It was nice to get a response that included not only an honest apology, but a completed plan to fix the issue and a promise to do better in the future. In the grand scheme of things this may be kind of minor, but I will happily enjoy a minor victory.