Why does airline security need to know if I’m male or female?

I’m increasingly irked at the number of times I’m asked to check boxes that say “male” or “female.” Sometimes, there’s a rationale. My university tracks this information in order to see how we’re complying with gender equity rules. This makes sense to me. Other times, such as my driver’s license, it makes no sense. Nor can I figure out why it matters to US airline security. According to CNN, “many air travelers will be asked their birth dates and genders when making airline reservations….It’s the latest “publicly visible” expansion of Secure Flight, a program that transfers responsibility for checking air passengers’ identities from the airlines to the federal government.” The full story is here.

13 thoughts on “Why does airline security need to know if I’m male or female?

  1. Perhaps they need the airport security workers to roughly mirror the gender make-up of fliers, since obviously men can’t search women etc, so this data helps them control for that. Just a total guess!

  2. According to the CNN article, the information about gender is supposed to help identify who is a terrorist, and who isn’t. How would it do that? Are they assuming one gender is more likely to commit acts of terrorism?

  3. I wonder if it’s not so much the gender of the individual that they’re interested in but whether, e.g., alarm bells go off if large groups of men are traveling together. Or maybe it’s just totally irrational!

  4. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s to reduce the number of false hits on the watch list. The more information they have, the less likely they are to mistake you for that other, more dangerous person who shares your name.

    But it’s still stupid.

  5. Dcontreras81 makes a good point. It could be used to tell Chris Johnson (male) from Chris Johnson (female) in case one of them is on the Do Not Fly list. But more likely, there is no reason. Most of the stuff done at airports is designed to make people feel more secure, not to make them actually more secure.

  6. Are they assuming one gender is more likely to commit acts of terrorism?

    I would think this might be one of the reasons. Less likely, at least, to attempt to overtake control of an aircraft by force, no? (No clue as to how this info would translate into practical measures, though.) Moreover, what proportion of on-board-aircraft terrorists have been women?

    (Julia Loktev’s closely observed, yet paradoxically perhaps too abstracted Day Night Day Night is a nevertheless interesting attempt to portray the final hours of a young American female suicide bomber wannabe.)

  7. I think there is room here for an applied ethics paper. Does anyone know if one’s been written? On facebook, you’re allowed to not specify and though they don’t give you a gender neutral pronoun (you end up as “they”) it’s better than forcing you to identify as one or the other. Another option is simply more choices. What options might the list include? Trans, gender queer, intersex ….

    Again, I can see contexts where it might matter, where there might be good principled reasons to keep track, but I wonder how we might spell out just what those conditions are?

  8. this discussion is already getting complicated. my guess is they didn’t think about it and there isn’t much behind it; they just had the airlines add the two common boxes (dob, gender) after first name|last name.

    the label terrorist, because of its protracted and excessive use in all too recent political history, is also suspect.

    so, women and terrorism. cases of female (and child and the disabled) suicide bombers have occurred within recent memory. women terrorists were instrumental in the takeover of a school in beslan in 2004, during russia’s ongoing conflicts with chechnya. there was a case of a woman trying to hijack a plane with a knife back in feb of 2008. i am sure i could find more examples, but i’d prefer not to today.

    i don’t think there is any reason to think men are more prone to being terrorists than women. in the case of airports, and other sensitive targets, the other option is that women *require* more scrutiny because they *aren’t* terrorists. So based on the assumption that women are less scrutinized, terrorists would use women to get banned objects onto the plane, near targets, etc. women, as history shows, are all too capable of being put into repressive situations where men are concerned. leaving this aside, the woman as terrorist tool would mean women actually would end up, potentially, getting more scrutiny in airports.

  9. A recent NY Times Magazine piece on Iraqi female suicide bombers:

    Baida was smiling again. “If I had not seen you before and talked to you, I would kill you with my own hands,” she said pleasantly. “Do not be deceived by my peaceful face. I have a heart of stone.”

  10. “there was a case of a woman trying to hijack a plane with a knife back in feb of 2008. i am sure i could find more examples, but i’d prefer not to today.”

    Does the name Leïla Khaled ring a bell?

  11. Though one might be attracted to the idea that the female is at least as deadly as the male, in fact the figures are overwhelmingly in the other direction for suicide bombings, as well as in other areas. So I’m not sure why anyone would say that the suicide bombers or terrorist more generally don’t tend to be men.

    Here’s a report from Fisk in the Independent a year and a half ago:

    .But a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. This is a very conservative figure and – given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people – the true estimate may be double this number. On several days, six – even nine – suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability. If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper.

    According to the NY Times, there have been 60 suicide bombings total for women in Iraq. Even without the last 18 months of figures for men, women are coming in at around 5%.

  12. I’m continually banging on at public authorities that they should always disaggregate their input/outcome stats by gender, even if not by minority social groupings, or else how do we know whether policy, planning, funding, etc is being assessed for its potential to impact unequally in a discriminatory way between women and men?
    If, by tracking the genders of everyone who flies domestic in the US more is learnt about the social patterns of transport use then isn’t this of potential benefit?
    Could it be that much of the angst here is caused by the clash between the belief that a human being is a totally autonomous individual vs the idea that people are parts of society and that society works better if we all subsume some of our individuality into this or that group?
    The more fixed someone is on being an utterly autonymous individual the more the intrusion of the ticket purchasing process will annoy?

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