The entity attributes in RDA are not just just recorded when needed to break conflicts. They are also intended to aid identification--to answer the question, "I wonder if this John Smith is the one I'm looking for?" RDA sees assisting the user with identifying persons, families, and corporate bodies as part of its mission. We don't establish names just for the name anymore--we want the authority description to include enough characteristics to make the entity recognizable.
Gender is one of the characteristics which make a person recognizable. There are many names in our catalog which to me convey no sense of gender. Having that indicated on an authority record as one of a variety of attributes could be an aid to me in determining that I've found the person I'm looking for.
I'm also certain that there are researchers who will be glad to make use of the kinds of categorical retrieval for persons which the new RDA attributes will make possible. Just now I did searches of authorities in OCLC specifying "rda" as the Descriptive convention, "college teachers" as the first Entity attribute, and "male" or "female" as the second Entity attribute. The numbers: Male college teachers, 27,110; female college teachers, 11,392. In other contexts, we could readily see the importance of this kind of data--as evidence of gender disparity, say, in the faculty of an academic department. Should the acknowledged delicacy of an in depth discussion of personal gender identity with an individual be an obstacle to recording this kind of data in all cases? I'd argue that for individuals being able to assert gender through culturally encoded names and styles of presentation is a way of associating themselves with a social group. Being part of a social group is desirable for lots of reasons. Arguably, even for the exceptional cases much discussed in this conversation, taking of a different name and style of presentation is as much about claiming group membership as it is about revealing self. Are we really doing anyone a favor by refusing to recognize such claims?
It's been argued that recording a person's gender is 1) an invasion of privacy and 2) an act of stereotyping and 3) a reinforcement of narrow and limiting social constructs.
1) I'd agree that discovering gender is no justification for invading privacy; but recording gender based on published self presentation is not an invasion of privacy.
2) Stereotyping is bad because it seeks to infer a whole set of characteristics for a person on the basis of one categorization. The new, more richly descriptive approach to authorities should work against this tendency. We record a range of attributes for the person on the basis of a evidence for each one. We don't say, "372 Medicine, 375 female; must be 374 Nurses". That would be stereotyping. On the other hand, if our evidence also reports that the person works as a nurse and we record that fact in 374, we are not stereotyping.
3) The challenge of changing narrow social constructs, making them more flexible and reflective of the variety which they contain, is arguably better accomplished not be rejecting a construct like male/female, but by gathering and presenting evidence of how varied the members of such categories are. In collective terms, that is the sort of project that RDA authorities can contribute to--demonstrating that each of these gender terms can correlate with many different fields of study or occupations. In the aggregate and over time, the effect of recording all these personal attributes will be to erode the monolithic notions of gender and make gender difference less powerful as tools of stereotyping and discrimination.
I'm open to proposals that for some people, the gender terms used and the ways of applying them need to be improved in RDA. But to use that issue to argue against the value and utility of recording gender in all cases is the result of seriously flawed analysis.