05/10/2010 03:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tales From the Census Trail: Sex and the Census

Virginia and Simone, Hillary and Sarah, I'm sorry. I owe you and every woman who longs for equality my sincerest apology: I'm strengthening the stereotype.

Despite efforts otherwise, I'm destroying the feminist cause by working for the Census Bureau. It never occurred to me until taking a job so far removed from academia or public relations (oh, how ironic) that I am a stereotypical female:

I can't drive.

I can't read a map.

I can't do basic arithmetic despite excelling in calculus.

I feel unsafe. Everywhere.

I'm scared of the spiders crawling on my Enumerator Questionnaires.

Now, before Harvard women get mad about the calculus comment, let me be frank: poor driving and navigation skills do not a woman make. Amelia Earhart made aviatrix a necessary term, and since most men in Washington can't to do fuzzy math either, we know that the stereotypes are silly. But despite growing up with a "Don't marry it. Be it!" poster, I'm playing perfectly into the stereotypical female box.

Working for the Census Bureau is giving me a lot of downtime to overanalyze things. Things like my name, age, race, and sex. For me, the sex question has become a complicated chicken or egg question: was I this "womanly" before I became an enumerator and just unaware of my reckless disregard for other drivers on the road? Or did becoming an enumerator make me crave chocolate by the hour?

I originally thought the Census was just giving me a new sense of self-awareness. But upon further over-analysis, this little ten-question form gives everyone I encounter a moment to stop and reflect on the basics, too.

Believe it or not, the questions often spark a thoughtful, serious pause from your average Census interviewee. Are you male or female? Do you rent or own? These questions, as obvious as they may sound, can take a full ten seconds of awkward, painful silence for some people to answer. You'd think I was asking about solutions to the Greek debt crisis or the pronunciation of Mt. Eyjafjallajökul, but the response given after a long, ponderous pause is "Yep, I'm male."

At first, it was shocking that so many people require time to think deeply about what age, sex and race they are. It's rare that I find someone who doesn't have to look at the twenty boxes provided before choosing a race or becoming intensely offended by the question.

But ironically, I didn't anticipate the repercussions of checking the female box until watching others contemplate them. My friend Pat warned me at Enumerator training: "You're a young woman. Are you sure you're going to feel safe knocking on random doors?"

"Of course, I'll be fine!"

Only a few neighborhoods later, I changed my mind.

When walking through a low-income apartment complex, a young woman began shaking and screaming after spotting a snake on the same patio where I was standing. "I'll come back!" I shrieked before running away.

In another neighborhood filled with white picket fences and minivans, a mother of five informed me that it wasn't safe to be there at 4:00 in the afternoon; "There were two drug busts down the street this week. You shouldn't be doing this alone."

If drug busts and snakes weren't enough to scare me, knocking on a door to find a man in his mid-thirties, stark naked, who was ready and willing to conduct an interview made it impossible for me to ignore my female intuition. "I'll come back at a better time" was all I could say before shielding my eyes. The "you're obviously a male" question would have been hard to ask.

The question of safety should have entered my mind before witnessing an old-fashioned brawl between rival neighborhoods. But for the millions of women on the other side of the doors I knock at, safety should be a priority, especially for the sweet old ladies who live alone with cats like Betty White. Thankfully, for many it already is. Male census workers know that women often refuse to open the door unless a female Census worker is present.

As thousands of men and women descend on houses to ask the simple questions, it's the harder "sex questions" we try to ignore that really beg a response. Even if I could navigate the North Sea with only a compass and the constellations, I'd still be a woman walking up to strange doors, hoping the man inside is clothed.