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Reducing Bias in Registration Forms

Ok, if that title sounds incredibly boring and dry -- I get you. Registration forms aren't something too many dancers think too hard about too frequently. However, I have special training in form development as a Professional Data Gatherer, and I feel an obligation to help other organizers build better forms. This post is a small recap of part of a talk I gave at LindyCon: Minneapolis and at Winter Blues 2016.

Once you've got an attendee convinced that they want to come to your event, the first thing they're ever going to do is register. You want that registration process to be smooth and easy, because if it isn't...they won't finish registration. And maybe one single registrant isn't that big of a loss, but, if a simple change could make the difference, wouldn't you want to make that change?

For example, when registration opened for Montreal Swing Riot, I was super jazzed. I've been watching the Lindy hop vs Street dance battle videos for years now and falling mad in love with this event that's cultivating a relationship across local dance communities. It's such a rad idea! So I excitedly went to register and found the form on the left below. There were two categories for "sex", and neither fit me. I had to make a decision at that moment: choose an incorrect designation, or take a risk and point out their error. What you see on the right is what Montreal Swing Riot has live today. I'm pretty ecstatic: Mx is a gender neutral title that works for all people, and allows their system to continue to work as needed.

But that was a difficult choice, and one I made because I had an extra stash of bravery that day. Their response was quick, and included an apology saying that they had never had anyone make that request before. This is a really common thing: no one's ever asked, so we never thought to do the thing. And as true as that is, we can be proactive to be more inclusive, to make our communities the kind of places where people of all genders feel welcome and included.

But this isn't the end of this topic - one corrected form does not actually address the bias problem. To do that, we have to go up a higher level, and consider why we're gathering the information that we're gathering. Frequently, registration forms include questions of sex and/or gender without any need for it, because the form by default had it. If we interrogate why an organizer might want to know the gender of their attendees, we get some potential answers.

  • Gender as Proxy for Dance Role

  • Gender as Proxy for Shirt Cut

  • Gender for Housing Purposes

Let's consider each of these in turn:

Gender as Proxy for Dance Role

Well. No. *shrug* If you want to know what role someone is planning on being in class or in competitions, ask them that. Gender and dance role may be highly correlated, but gender is not an accurate predictor of dance role, and that's becoming less true as our community becomes more inclusive.

Gender as Proxy for Shirt Cut

I mean...sure? But wouldn't it better to post the size charts for the shirt cuts you've chosen and let people make their own decisions, rather than guessing what kind of shirt they want based on their gender? Some men like their v-necks, some women want a straight-cut shirt, some genderqueers just want to pick a shirt.

Gender for Housing Purposes

This is the most legitimate reason for wanting gender on forms. Some people, either because of past experience or personal beliefs, prefer to be housed with people of the same gender. However, it can be sidestepped gingerly, by asking people if they have housing preferences in an open box. If your housing coordinator is a boss, they're pulling from people they know for housing, and presumably know their genders. If any incoming dancers state a preference then, they can make appropriate matches. This is where that human management comes in. This is more difficult, and I can understand allowing the technology to do a little bit of this data gathering.

Examining these different answers shows us that even a casual examination of why we're asking our participants for information can give us reasons to ask questions differently.

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