Rethinking gender on nzflatmates

Flat-hunting website nzflatmates that I started back in the early days of the internet has been a labour of love for over 20 years. A lot has changed during that time — not least of all, how we think about gender.

nzflatmates strives to be an inclusive and non-discriminatory platform

When we launched the all-new version of nzflatmates earlier this year I knew it was time to rethink how gender was supported by the platform. Female, male and transgender have always supported — but I knew that fell woefully short of what was needed to build a fully inclusive platform and community.

A friend of mine has given this topic a lot of thought, and they were kind enough to lend a hand. Before I get started, I’ll share an insight into how they and other experts on this topic think about gender.

We don’t really like to be lumped into this third gender category, because that’s not what gender is about. There’s not three genders, there’s an infinite amount as it evolves every day.

They went on to illustrate that gender is a deeply personal thing, that it can be different for each person at different points in their lifetime, and that it exists on a spectrum. There are so many genders to consider including transgender, gender queer, trans feminine to name just a few. Not everyone considers themselves just a man or a women, but perhaps something close to that. Perhaps they have transitioned gender, maybe from cis man or woman, to something else close to a man or woman on another part of the gender spectrum.

The UI/IX required to support thinking about gender this way is actually pretty simple. Instead of asking people to choose between three genders (i.e. woman, man and non-binary) or indeed a much larger range of genders (i.e. woman, man, non-binary, female-to-male transgender, male-to-female transgender, gender queer, or the dreaded “other”) we instead elected to present a free text field where people can write their gender exactly as it is for them.

The form looks like this…

Of course, presenting and recording gender this way presents challenges at the other end of a flatmate-matching service i.e. searching and filtering. Shouldn’t flatmates be able to say they’re looking exclusively for female flatmates? Would this include people who have transitioned from male to female? Shouldn’t people using the site be able to filter out genders they wouldn’t feel comfortable living with? If people can filter out male flatmates, should they also be able to filter out people who have transitioned to male? This felt hurtful, icky and wrong. I struggled with this question as the entire motivation for starting nzflatmates was to make it easier and less awkward for people to find people they were safe and comfortable living with — and a person’s gender, sexuality, religious beliefs and so on often play such an important part to answering that question.

Again, I consulted my friend on this important topic…

I think you’ve almost answered this one yourself. You said people looking share who they are, and people advertising share who they are. I think it should be left at that, and both parties can make a decision based on what type of person they’re linking up with, and if they could be compatible. I think giving people the ability to say I am X type of person, and I am looking for Y type of person can be easily criticised, and be quite problematic. I agree people need the transparency to know who they could be living with, and prevent any unwanted surprises, but it can be easily viewed as discriminatory. ie (not that you’re offering) but a landlord cannot discriminate by race (by law at least, in practise, different story).

I guess thinking about scenarios, if a woman only wanted to live with other women, they would list themselves as a woman, and they would be only seeking out other women on the platform. They could receive some unwanted requests from men etc, which I would hope they feel they have the power to reject or ignore. I would also expect that if something like that was a non-negotiable requirement, they would either infer that in their bio through interests (i.e I’m a feminist, women’s rights), or they would blatantly state they only want to live with women, which takes the liability away from you/the platform for promoting perceived exclusion.

This was a real “ah ha” moment for me — and it prompted us to scrap the entire section of the website that allowed people to programmatically state their preferences on a whole range of personal attributes including gender, age, ethnicity, religious beliefs, dietary requirements and so on. We continue to support people’s ability to state these things about themselves, and their preferences in a free-text bio, but the platform itself plays no role in making these preferences selectable programmatically so that they could be used to filter people in or out.

The new site has only been live for a little over a week, but early feedback has been great and it’s fun to see people embrace our new way of thinking about gender. We’ve already seen flatmates list themselves as transgender ftm, androgynous, non-binary and gender diverse.

I believe it’s important that we open our minds to how different people experience the world and to be considerate of different experiences when designing and building products and services. When it comes to gender and other forms of self identity — nothing could be more important. Diversity is what makes life interesting and rewarding, and in the case of nzflatmates — it makes flatting more interesting and rewarding too.

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Dylan Bland

Love web, gaming, cars, business, politics and philosophy. Live in Auckland, New Zealand. Rebel without a cause.