When filling out various forms, you might have been asked to select your gender. This is common for job applications, school applications, government forms, and website profiles. The reason why will vary by type of form, but there are reasons that certain forms ask for this information.

Why would a job ask for your gender? Doesn’t that violate an anti-discrimination law?
Cangrade is a company that helps companies and recruiters find talent to hire. According to a 2017 blog post on the company’s site, there are three reasons why US companies would collect this data:

  1. To make sure they are maintaining non-discriminatory, ethical, and legal hiring practices;
  2. To measure the validity of their process (i.e. make sure one group isn’t being eliminated at a higher rate than others);
  3. To send this information to the government.

Why does this information get sent to the government?
The Cangrade blog post says the reason that the information is sent to the government is to ensure compliance with both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs:

  1. Depending on the number of employees a company has, the company is required by law to submit an annual report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission painting the picture of overall statistics about the company.
  2. Companies with government contracts have to comply with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which is designed to prevent discrimination. To comply with this, companies have to keep a lot of records that are periodically reported.

These are specific to the United States, but a 2016 WalesOnline article explained that the UK has similar practices in place. The Equality Act comprises several pieces of legislation designed to prevent discrimination of various kinds.

OK, so why do colleges ask for gender? Similar reasons?
In a 2018 U.S. News & World Report article, writer Ilana Kowarski quoted college admissions consultant Kristen Moon, who said that gender is not an insignificant factor in college admissions:

I have seen that gender does come into play in college admissions… The majority of universities are striving for diversity and to maintain roughly a 50/50 balance between men/women. When a university has a significant skew in either gender, being the minority can certainly work in your favor.

The article went on to quote Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of SavingForCollege.com, who said, “If there are more students from one gender applying, the acceptance rate for that gender might be lower.”

But isn’t that discrimination? I thought that violated the law.
In a 2015 Washington Post article, Jon Birger explained that Title IX, which bans sex discrimination at undergraduate programs receiving federal funding, only applies to public colleges and universities. Private colleges and universities are exempt.

Why?
Birger said that according to women’s rights activist Bernice Sandler, Ivy League schools demanded an exemption for private-college admissions back in the early 1970s and the only way that activists thought they could get it passed would be to acquiesce. Birger explained:

The reason private colleges wanted the exemption in 1972 is different from the reason they utilize it today. Back then, too many admissions officers operated with the now-laughable assumption that women primarily matriculated to get their “Mrs.” degree. Today’s officials know better. They fear though that if enrollments reach 60 percent women, it will scare off the most sought-after applicants, who generally want gender balance for social reasons. “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive,” Kenyon College’s dean of admissions, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, wrote in The New York Times in 2006.

What does this mean for LGBTQ students, specifically transgender students?
The Common Application allows students applying to multiple colleges and universities to complete one application that gets sent to all, rather than having to complete multiple applications. According to CommonApp.com, the application is used by more than 800 colleges and universities. The Universal College Application works in a similar way.

In 2016, Lydia O’Connor reported for The Huffington Post, both applications were updated to give students more options for identifying their gender:

Starting in the 2016-2017 academic year, the Common Application will offer an optional free response text field to give students a place to further describe their gender identity, and will update the “sex” field to read “sex assigned at birth,” its leadership said.

The Universal College Application in July will begin asking applicants for their “legal sex” instead of simply “sex.” While applicants must select “male” or “female” on the form, a new optional gender identity question will offer students the choice of identifying as “man,” “woman” or “self identity” with a free-form text field, according to the consortium of schools that use the application.

The Los Angeles Times reported that in the fall of 2015, students applying to the University of California could “choose among six gender identities listed on undergraduate admissions forms: male, female, trans male, trans female, gender queer/gender non-conforming and different identity.”

What led to these application changes?
A blog post on CommonApp.com included an explanation from Gil Villanueva, chair of the The Common Application’s Board of Directors, as to why The Common Application made the changes:

The Common Application is not merely a collection of data points. It is, rather, a vehicle through which all students regardless of their background can express who they are. We want to make sure that all students have the ability to express themselves in the ways in which they feel most comfortable. We are now at a place where we believe we can make an adjustment that not only serves students, but also helps to meet the needs of member colleges and universities.

Kate Moser, spokeswoman at University of California’s office of the president, told The Los Angeles Times that “when a university has better information on their student population, better decisions can be made about allocating the resources to support students.”

Is this information that hasn’t been traditionally collected by universities?
No. A group of researchers with Indiana University’s Equity Project released a paper in March 2016 calling on the federal government to collect data on LGBTQ+ students’ experiences, The Washington Post reported. The scope of this paper was broad, focusing on a variety of issues of schools of various levels, not just universities and colleges. The paper acknowledged two seemingly contradictory ideas:

  • LGBTQ students being out at school could experience stress and be at risk of “rejection, discrimination, negative mental health outcomes, or lack of support from family”
  • LGBTQ students could benefit from comprehensive data about their experiences in schools, as that information could make the case to prove discrimination

So the purpose of collecting the data would be to prove and prevent discrimination?
That could be one benefit, but certainly not the only one. When it was announced that the Universal College Application and the Common Application would change the way the applications ask about gender, the move was praised for multiple reasons. Gabe Murchison, senior research manager at Human Rights Campaign, explained the importance of this in an e-mail to digital news and lifestyle magazine TakePart:

A gender identity field on applications indicates that schools should take this information seriously and gives them the opportunity to address and assign students appropriately… Transgender applicants will feel welcomed and included, which is especially crucial for young adults in the process of joining a new community.

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