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Google+ will let users conceal gender

Google's decision allows the likes of the Ford Motor Company to avoid the difficult task of deciding whether it's male, female, or "other."

The Ford Motor Company has officially decided that its gender is not male. Nor is it female. On the Google+ social networking site, Ford lists it as "other."

That may not exactly be incorrect, but the bit of corporate awkwardness was the result of Google making two interrelated design decisions: first, gender can be only male, female, or other. Second, whatever gender is selected must be public.

Until now. Google announced this evening that gender could be hidden from public profiles, a move that likely comes as a relief to ABC News Radio (other), the Austin American-Statesman (ditto), and the Chicago Sun-Times (you guessed it).

Frances Haugen, a Google product manager, announced the change in a post and video this evening that said it would take effect this week. "Gender can be a sensitive topic, especially on the Internet," she said.

Haugen said that asking for gender is useful to personalize Google+, especially in non-English languages with masculine and feminine word forms. Now, she said, if gender is set to private, Google+ will use generic words like "they" instead of "his" or "her." The tweaks represent a quick, privacy-sensitive switch by Google.

It's also convenient for companies. Google product manager Christian Oestlian initially said that "we are not currently supporting brands, organizations, and nonhuman entities in the Google+ field trial." He later added that Google is removing non-personal Google+ accounts except for some it'll use for testing its ideas. Ford, whose Google+ remains intact even as others were deleted, apparently is one of the corporations in the test.

And Bradley Horowitz, the vice president of product management overseeing Google+, said on Google+ "for now we are actively discouraging businesses to adopt consumer profiles, but we have heard the feedback and will obviously do what we can down the line to build optimal experiences." That was on June 30; Oestlian said Google hopes to launch Google+ corporate accounts later this year.

Here's a Web form where you can ask to participate in Google+ as an "entity" instead of an individual.

And here's Haugen's video: