For Inclusive Businesses, “Male” And “Female” Aren’t Enough Anymore — Interview with John Kershaw Founder of Bristlr, M14 Industries, and Open Gender Project

The idea that there is more than two genders has taken off in recent years, at the same time as online dating has become increasingly popular. But how do you program for a potentially infinite number of genders? John Kershaw of the white label dating site and app company M14 Industries walks us through it.

October 5th, 2016   |    By: Emma McGowan

A recent study done by for Fusion called the Massive Millennial Poll — which included 1,000 people between the ages of 18-34 — found that a firm 50 percent of millennials don’t think that there are only two genders.

Instead, people are viewing as gender and sex as two related but different things: Sex being a person’s biology (including genitals, chromosomes, and hormones) and gender being someone’s identity (including how they present themselves to the world and which pronouns they choose to use). While most people fall within the binary of “male” or “female,” there’s a growing portion of people who simply don’t.

And another cultural shift — online dating — is happening concurrently with this change in how we view gender. While online dating is relatively new in the history of human dating, its explosive growth and popularity over the past decade can’t be underestimated: According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of 18-34 year olds use a dating site, up threefold in just the past few years.

These two trends are clashing in a major way, as dating sites struggle to switch from an easy-to-program gender binary to a world that includes an endless number of possible self-identifiers.

OkCupid introduced 50 possible gender options in 2014 and Facebook (which obviously isn’t a dating site but whose API a lot of dating sites and apps utilize) famously introduced 58 gender options the same year and then switched to a fill-in field for gender in 2015.

There are a ton of options out there and most of them are terrible because they don’t talk to anyone who has any real lived experience.

It’s in this environment that John Kershaw — founder of M14 Industries — launched his dating site Bristlr, whose tagline is “connecting those with beards to those who want to stroke beards.” Users are asked at signup which category they fall under: People with beards and people without beards.

One thing that was notably missing from Bristlr? Any mention of gender.

Bristlr

While Bristlr was started “kind of as a joke,” according to John, the site got international media attention. Running with that momentum, John took everything he’d learned while creating Bristlr and created M14 Industries, which bills itself as “the world’s first white label dating platform that allows both mobile first websites and apps.”

And while John firmly believes that the gender binary is broken, he soon realized that a white label solution for online dating couldn’t ignore gender — and that there wasn’t much information out there for people who wanted to offer a non-binary gender option on their dating apps and sites.

That’s where the Open Gender Project comes in.

Unpacking Gender And Online Dating

John and his team could have pushed an ebook covering what they’d learned about gender and online dating and called it a day, but they decided to take a three step approach instead. The first step? Figuring out what non-binary people actually want and need.

“There are a ton of options out there,” John says. “And most of them are terrible because they don’t talk to anyone who has any real lived experience.”

So they started by talking to their own friends and acquaintances who identify as outside the gender binary. For step two, they set up a very simple, text-heavy landing page called the Open Gender Project.

The site gives definitions for basic terminologies related to the gender spectrum, a vision for where they want to take the project, and contact information so that anyone who’s interested in making their project more gender-inclusive can call or email for a free consultation.

Those free consultations are key to step three, which will be open source code and resources for anyone who’s interested in making their dating app or site more gender-inclusive.

John and his team are paying close attention to the questions people are asking so that the content they produce isn’t based on their own assumptions but instead on what their customer base actually wants and needs to know.

John Kershaw, Founder of Bristlr

So What Are Best Practices For Gender Inclusivity and inclusive businesses?

Based on their research and feedback, the Open Gender Project has come up with one elegant solution for being more gender inclusive in business. They’ve found that it’s best to offer three options: “male,” “female,” and an empty text box where people can fill in their own gender. Most people will choose one of the binary options, but the text box gives people who identify outside of those two an opportunity to be included.

“But what about matching?” you might be thinking. Obviously it’s a lot easier to match two gender options than it is to match a potentially infinite number of options, right? The Open Gender Project addresses that issue succinctly on their homepage. They use a “public list of synonyms to match people,” while fully acknowledging that the results might not be extremely accurate — and that might not be a bad thing.

“We don’t need the results of the gender matching to be exact, we just need it to be inclusive. It’s better to include people you’re not interested in than miss someone out.

“For example: if you say you’re interested in men, we’ll show you cis-men and trans-men. If you say you’re interested in trans-men, we wouldn’t show you cis-men,” the site continues.

But there’s just one more thing they want you to be aware of.

“Don’t label the text box as ‘other’ because that can be very ‘othering,’” John says. “You don’t want to be an other — you just want to be you.”

Bristlr

What’s Next?

While John freely admits that the Open Gender Project isn’t the first group to try to figure out how to be a gender inclusive business — and they won’t be last — he hopes that they’ll become the best.

M14 is doing exactly what they should be doing in their pursuit of best practices for gender inclusivity in dating apps: asking for input both from people who want to create dating apps and sites and those who identify as outside the gender binary.

It’s a model any startup — online dating or not — should follow as we try to innovate our way through tricky changes in social mores.


About the Author

Emma McGowan

Emma McGowan is a full time blogger and digital nomad has been writing about startups, living with startup people, and basically breathing startups for the past five years. Emma is a regular contributor to Bustle, Startups.com, KillerStartups, and MiKandi. Her byline can also be found on Mashable, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, The Bold Italic, as well as a number of startup blogs.

Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.

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