Best Practices for More Gender Inclusive Surveys

In a previous post, we delved into the role of race in research and how to conduct more racially inclusive studies. In this article, we’ll take a look at how gender and sex fit into market research, and why restructuring our research methods...

In a previous post, we delved into the role of race in research and how to conduct more racially inclusive studies. In this article, we’ll take a look at how gender and sex fit into market research, and why restructuring our research methods to implement a more gender-inclusive approach is not just ethical, but also one that benefits research as a whole.

Quick definitions

Before we dive into this topic, let’s outline some important definitions:

Sex
The biological category based on chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics

Gender/Gender Identity
How someone refers to themselves regardless of their biological sex

Sexual Orientation
A person’s emotional, physical, and sexual attraction to other people

It is important to note that sex and gender are not the same. A person’s sex is based on their anatomy, while their gender is based on their psychology. Additionally, while this article will reference sexual orientation, it will mostly focus on sex and gender identity.

A glossary with more terms can be found at the end of this post.

Background on Gender and Research

Traditionally, research was built to cater to what American society considered the norm – wealthy, young, heterosexual white men. These cultural biases started shifting in the 1980s as studies began to incorporate demographic questions – such as gender – into their data collection processes. Within a few years, collecting gender information in research became standard.

However, this data was mostly limited to collecting demographic information within the gender binary – i.e., data collected wouldn’t go beyond asking participants if they were male or female. Moreover, questions about someone’s gender would often be conflated with their sex, meaning that the information collected was largely inaccurate. As mentioned above, science now accepts that a person’s gender identity might not psychologically align with their reproductive organs. This is an example of gender misclassification, which both ignores our basic scientific understanding of gender and sex and poses a threat to the validity of demographic data collected.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a phenomenon left in the 1980s. Studies and reports today frequently use language that falls within the gender binary. A journal article published in 2019 found that the vast majority of psychology researchers – a shocking 76% – used binary measures and thus “did not use measures that would allow nonbinary and some transgender individuals to ethically and accurately report their gender.”

A 2015 toolkit on gender sensitivity sanctioned by the European Union fails to acknowledge gender identities outside of the male/female binary. One of the main guidelines suggests that adopting a more gender-sensitive methodology requires including “both male and female points of view.” There is no mention of trans, genderqueer, or nonbinary identities whatsoever. This is outdated and harmful to research methodology.

In order to gather accurate and comprehensive demographic information, we need to leave behind traditional questions about gender and sex in favor of more inclusive, open-ended approaches.

Why is gender important?

Misgendering someone is disrespectful and dismissive of their personal identity. Sticking to the gender binary fails to reflect social scientists’ current understanding of gender, and is therefore unscientific. The American Psychological Association states that gender needs to be viewed as a spectrum in order to collect accurate and inclusionary data.

Additionally, trans people in the US face significantly higher rates of discrimination and violence when compared to cisgender people. One report from the CDC found that 35% of transgender students are bullied at school and 27% feel unsafe walking to and from school. The National Center for Trans Equality’s 2015 report concluded that a staggering 40% of trans respondents attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the general population.

However, trans identities are slowly becoming more normalized. A 2016 study out of UCLA found that over the last decade, the number of individuals identifying as transgender in the US doubled in size, representing over 1.4 million people at the time. A 2017 paper predicts that future studies will likely find that more Americans will identify as transgender, as awareness and education of the topic improves while stigmatization decreases. As society shifts away from the gender binary and towards a more gender-inclusive stance, research and academia needs to pave the long road ahead.

Conducting more gender-inclusive research

Do you need to question gender and sex?
Before you begin to gather demographic data from participants, it is important to decide whether or not data on gender, sex, and sexual orientation are crucial to your study. The University of Utah suggests that asking for someone’s gender identity in a survey may not justify collecting the data in the first place. Also ask yourself if all three data points are necessary. Would asking just one or two questions between gender/sex/sexual orientation suffice? Admitting one’s gender, sex, or sexual orientation can be uncomfortable for some, even under anonymity. By eliminating the need to answer such questions, participants might be more comfortable to continue the questionnaire.

How to frame questions on gender and sex
If information about participants’ gender, sex, and sexual orientation are required for the study, best practices dictate separating the questions. Make it clear that someone’s gender need not be related to their sex. Moreover, sexual orientation is completely independent from sex and gender. If possible, omit questions about sexual orientation; if they are deemed vital for the study, separate them even more. Having that visual barrier between questions further reinforces the idea that gender, sex, and sexual orientation are distinct and unique concepts.

When asking about someone’s gender or sex, ensure that the list of options is exhaustive. Avoid ordering the list in a way that might be recognized as the norm – e.g. beginning with male and female and then listing nonbinary options. Instead, consider ordering the list alphabetically or at random. Additionally, allow participants to fill in their own gender identity or decline from responding completely. Here is an example of how you could structure questions on gender and sex:

How do you identify?
Genderqueer/Nonbinary
– Man
– Trans man
– Trans woman
– Woman
– Not listed: _______________
– Prefer not to reply

Sex
– Female
– Intersex
– Male
– Not listed: _______________
– Prefer not to reply

Working with older, binary-focused data
Market research often relies on the use of historical data to trend, make comparisons, and set benchmarks, which poses a problem. Historical data is likely reliant on binary gender-based data sets, which can prove challenging when trying to draw comparisons to data based on more modern non-binary gender classifications.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this quandary. The way this can be handled is dependent on a number of factors – project type, data set, end client, internal protocols, etc. For example, some researchers may decide to only compare within parameters that match historical data (comparisons done only between male/female data sets), and wait to compare non-binary data until enough data has been built or enough time has passed to instill confidence in the comparison. Another researcher may simply “asterisk” the data being compared, adding a footnote to point out the differences in the composition of the base.

Avoiding gendered language
Despite society becoming more accepting and aware of trans identities, English is still filled with gendered language that can be seen as harmful towards trans and nonbinary identities. Mitigating such language by using agendered words is straightforward and easily implementable.

If your survey has examples in it, try using “they/them” pronouns in favor of “he/her”. Avoid words such as “policeman” or “congressman”, and replace them with their gender-neutral alternatives, “police officer” and “congressperson”.

Keep questions as open-ended as possible. Opt for “How do you identify?” over “To which gender identity do you most identify?” in order to not pressure participants into answering. Furthermore, do not use “other” as an option under questions about sex or gender. Calling someone “other” serves to further marginalize identities that are less common or don’t fit into our general perception of sex and gender norms.

Finally, refrain from asking participants if they belong to the LGBTQ+ community as a demographic question. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. are sexual orientations, transgender, nonbinary, etc. are gender identities, and intersex is a sex assignment. Asking if someone is part of the broader LGBTQ+ community is not helpful in gathering demographic data, as it does not distinguish between sex, gender, and sexual orientation.

Ultimately, society has a long way to go before we fully accept and normalize all sex and gender identities. However, regendering the way in which research is conducted can serve as a great stepping stone and can help younger generations perceive gender in a more inclusive, progressive manner.

Glossary

Cisgender
Someones whose gender identity aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth

Gender/Gender Identity
How someone refers to themselves regardless of their biology

Genderfluid
Someone who does not identify with a single fixed gender

Gender Binary
The now outdated classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine

Intersex
People born with ambiguous genitalia or bodies that appear neither typically male nor female, often arising from chromosomal anomalies

Nonbinary
Someone who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman

Personal Gender Pronouns
The set of pronouns that an individual personally uses and would like others to use when talking to or about that individual. Common examples are they/them/their, he/him/his, she/her/hers

Sex
The biological category based on chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics

Sexual Orientation
A person’s emotional, physical, and sexual attraction to other people

Transgender
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth

Trans Man
Someone labeled a female at birth but who has a male gender identity

Trans Woman
Someone labeled a male at birth but who has a female gender identity

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