A while back, I was involved in a BBS discussion about computers and gender (in the context of whether the notion of "female-friendly design features" was a logical one).
Initially I was rather annoyed with the very premise of the discussion, as when I think of "female-friendly design features", my mind cynically goes straight to pictures of pink Barbie-themed laptops where you can play "shopping games".
But it turned out that (and I'm paraphrasing heavily here, since this discussion happened a while ago) the person who started the discussion was actually just referring to design features that might actually be functionally useful for a statistically significant percentage of women. Such features might include, say, a smaller keyboard to accommodate smaller hands. In other words, she wasn't talking about making computers pink, or pre-loading them with "Magic Makeover" software or anything else relating to cultural stereotypes -- she was just talking about perhaps implementing design variations and options that at least some women might benefit from.
Now, I'm still vaguely skeptical about the need to "gender" these features in the first place, as there are always going to be people of every gender (and I say "every" because gender isn't exactly binary) who find certain device options useful per their individual characteristics. But at the same time, I do see it as potentially useful to look at what groups are using (or not using) particular devices, and why. Sometimes, things end up getting designed with all kinds of built-in assumptions about who is going to be using them -- and consequently, people the designers didn't have in mind have more difficulty using those things, or have a sub-optimal experience while using them.
So in a sense, I guess I'm okay with considering gender as a design factor when the consideration is geared toward making devices (or offering services) that a wider variety of people can benefit from. As the person who started the gender-and-computers discussion noted, there are ways of accounting for physical and functional realities different people face that are descriptive, not prescriptive.
Descriptive Versus Prescriptive
I want to explore the concept of "descriptive versus prescriptive" a bit here, as it's a distinction I've been finding tremendously useful lately in thinking about labels and how they are employed. In the aforementioned discussion about computers and gender, I initially jumped right to the conclusion that "female-friendly design features" must refer to silly, stereotype-reinforcing aesthetic elements.
I remember as a kid being tremendously irritated by things like the fact that bicycles in catalogs advertised as being "for girls" were almost invariably PINK, covered in hearts, and emblazoned with ridiculous phrases like "Pretty Lady" or "Princess Sunshine". Not only that, but they often had white tires (as if they didn't expect girls would even dream of riding through mud puddles, etc.).
(Me, I was all about riding the BMX through the dirt.)
Eventually, as a result of seeing so many things I had no interest in presented as being "for girls!", and being occasionally chastised for daring to wander outside the boundaries of certain stereotypes, it got to the point where I started to wonder if I even was a "real girl". There was so much I was apparently "supposed" to be that I just plain wasn't, so my natural reaction was to wonder if someone had stuck the wrong tag on me at the factory, so to speak.
So, even though I was definitely what you might call "socially oblivious" in some respects, I was very aware of stereotypes and how they tended to be "enforced" from a fairly early age. I couldn't really not notice them, as I ran up against them constantly in pursuing my interests and trying to express my actual preferences.
Nevertheless, I can now see that pretty much everything that bothered me about gender-related stuff as a kid was rooted in gender (and gender stereotypes in particular) being applied prescriptively. I think I figured this out on some level (though not the linguistic level, as I couldn't have described it in this way back then) when I was maybe ten or eleven -- at that point I stopped doubting the fact that I was actually a girl, and decided instead that the problem had to do with the assumed definition of "girl" being too narrow.
In other words, girl was a fine enough descriptive term for someone with my physical features and chromosome configuration, but there was absolutely no reason for that term to limit me as far as what activities I could try out, or as far as what things I could be interested in.
And...that's how I've tended to approach labels and associated concepts ever since.