Is your software product talking to women (*) as if they were men?

(*) In fact, persons who prefer to be addressed as feminine in languages with grammatical gender.

Porque llevaba trenzas… by Sergi Bernal. © All rights reserved


If you are developing a software product for registered users, are you supporting grammatical gender? Lack of this support happens to be fine in English and other languages without grammatical gender. It is also fine for the speakers of all the rest of languages, as long as they are fine being addressed as masculine. Now, what about their feminine colleagues?

My morning vanished while writing and posting this message in the very welcoming friendly community space of an impressive and lovely free software project. I am picking these adjectives carefully and I really mean them. I am having a great time using that software and participating in that community, and this is why I invested this morning (of a busy day) in a single post.

Then I thought that perhaps this post could be recycled for other software products. In my casual search early today, I didn’t find as many articles as I wished about grammatical gender in software development. Here goes a small contribution (and humble, since I am not a specialist). I hope someone finds it useful.

Agreeing that gender in translations is a problem

Without consensus about the root problem, the discussion about implementation will be unnecessarily complicated. Experiences of fluent English speaking men cannot be taken as a reference for how is the user experience for non-male users using software in languages with gender differentiation.

About half of the World population would like to be addressed as a female if possible. I didn’t count speakers, but languages with grammatical gender are more frequent than not. This seems to be true for the current list of languages available for our_project, a clear indication of which speakers are using our_project today.

Agreeing that it is not an urgent problem

Indeed, I am not suggesting that we should stop everything to solve this problem.  our_project probably doesn’t have that many strings subject to grammatical gender in other languages, and in the meantime translators can find workarounds (as they have probably done in the meantime). Recognizing the problem and a willingness to solve it would be a big progress in itself.

One suggestion is to accept reports of problems related with grammatical gender as bugs, while the implementation of a technical solution is agreed and implemented. Suggestions for workarounds would be welcome (i.e. adapting a translation whenever possible) but they would be considered just that, workarounds in the interim. Welcoming these reports would help understand better the problem.

Gender information and privacy

I bet we can agree that preferred gender identification would be a user preference only, used for the purpose of providing a better user interface. That information would remain private, not visible in user profile, user lists, or any public page.

Defining gender preference

Our goal is not to identify people’s gender orientation (a rather complex topic) but to simply offer a language that corresponds to the gender preference of the user. The question is not “what is your gender” but “How do you prefer to be described?” (MediaWiki), “Choose the pronoun you prefer” (Phabricator) or something along these lines.

This setting could be disabled by default, since English is the default locale and (as far as we are aware) it doesn’t have this problem in our_project. Then specific languages could have it enabled out of the box.

How to fix buttons and other text strings in the UI

I believe the solution is not to have separate locales for male and female (a probable nightmare for translators) but to introduce variables in strings where gender variation happens. However, I am not a software developer, so it is easy for me to talk. :wink:

The good news is that our_project is not the first project dealing with this problem, and recyclable solutions probably exist. MediaWiki (probably the free software product translated to more languages, supporting grammatical gender since 2010) has developer documentation for PHP and JavaScript. If you are interested, I can put you in touch with their developers specializing in internationalization.


So yes, fixing the entire problem is not simple, but I have no doubt that it is worthy. In the past, non-male participants in web forums were hard to find (and non-male software developers too, who might have a special incentive to work on this), but things are luckily changing. Very successful “forum” (aka “social network”) products are very good at handling gender diversity and (surprise surprise) their communities excel at gender diversity among their membership. our_project would benefit from taking the contemporary products and the contemporary trends as reference, not the products and trends that were designed and thriving in the so-male-centric Internet of 10-15 years ago.

2 thoughts on “Is your software product talking to women (*) as if they were men?”

  1. Software developers who speak only English, or who speak other languages, but incorrectly think that “everybody knows English anyway”, just don’t notice that grammatical gender is needed more frequently in other languages than in English. It’s a privilege; not as often discussed in English-language media as male or white privilege, but a privilege nevertheless. More on this:
    The amusing thing is that grammatical gender often is needed in English, and often people use “they” instead of “he”. They just don’t realize that in other languages it’s needed more frequently, so they don’t bother looking for a more comprehensive solution.
    I wish jQuery.i18n was used by more people. Then it would easy for everyone. Feel free to share:
    (And yes, we do plan to make a version that would work with Node and without jQuery some day.)

  2. Dear Quim,

    It’s been a while, but the answer is simple: Everyone should just switch to Finnish. No awkward gender translations…

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