Ethnicity Question for Surveys

Ask survey questions about ethnicity with care and sensitivity.

The ethnicity question and related questions about race and nationality, belong to the demographics family, and are typically included alongside other demographic questions to better understand what background factors could be influencing a respondent’s choices.

In common with many other questions related to demographics, questions around ethnicity can be quite sensitive, since ethnicity is a multifaceted and changing phenomenon with various available ways of measuring ethnic groups that have been used over time.

What are demographics?

From factors ranging from age, ethnicity and gender, to education, marital status, employment and household income brackets. Demographic questions focus on collecting background information such as this to help researchers better understand the identity of each respondent.

The thinking here, is that by categorising individuals based on their answers to a series of demographic questions, it’s possible to identify factors that may be influencing a respondent’s views, interests and opinions.

Difference between race, ethnicity and nationality

Similar to a number of other factors in the demographics’ family, questions around ethnicity can be sensitive and even more so if questions on ethnicity and race are incorrectly grouped together or used interchangeably.

So, it’s important to know what the differences are between the key terms before you get started on creating your survey questions. It will also help you to be clearer about what you’re asking and provide you with greater clarity about why you need this data, to ensure you use it in the right way going forward.

When it comes to the difference between race and ethnicity, one of the clearest distinctions is that one can be changed, but the other cannot.

Race:

Your race essentially refers to your biological features, genetic makeup and heritage that you were born with, regardless of location or any learned behaviours. It is denoted by phenotypic characteristics you were born with such as your skin, eye and hair colour that cannot be changed.

Ethnicity:

In contrast to race, ethnicity is a lot more complex. For example, a Caucasian male can be called white, but that does not describe his ethnicity. He could be a Caucasian from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, or any other number of countries.

Ethnicity is about tradition, customs and their origin. It is also about the learnings of where you come from and celebrating the traditions and ideas from a particular region. And in contrast to race, ethnicity gives you the room to accept, reject or change your ethnicity, through your choice of beliefs.

Nationality:

In addition to race and ethnicity, nationality is a legal identification of a person in international law, establishing the person as a subject, or a national of a sovereign state. It affords the state jurisdiction over a person and in return affords the person the protection of the state against other states. Nationality is also one of many qualities that brings people together.

Ethnicity options for a survey

Although some of the issues around ethnicity can be quite sensitive, the collection of data in this area can be hugely valuable for many organisations working within the private and public sectors.

From helping to champion greater equality, inclusion and diversity in the workplace, to enabling a better understanding and improvement in the healthcare and educational needs of different groups in society. There can be many reasons why organisations might want to collect data on race and ethnicity, leading to the inclusion of questions on this topic in a wide number of surveys ranging from market and academic research to employee, healthcare, education and non for profit and charitable organisation surveys.

For example, in the area of employment PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), recently published a study of over 100 employers that found that the percentage of businesses collecting other employee ethnicity data has increased from 53% to 67%. The reasons for this ranged from working to promote fairer access to all for the best work opportunities, to addressing issues around ethnic diversity and pay gaps.

How to ask the ethnicity question

From a recruitment, employee and patient feedback survey to a market research and a census survey. When it comes to survey questions, there could be numerous occasions when you need to ask the ethnicity question in a survey, so it can be helpful to have some best practice guidance and examples of how to create and word your questions.

Generally, as the ethnicity question is quite a sensitive one, you need to be clear from the outset about why you’re asking it and what the data will be used for as part of your usual good practice for collecting personal information from users. You also need to make it as simple as possible for respondents to select their ethnicity from a range of ethnic groups.

Give respondents the option to opt-out

As a rule of thumb, unless you’re unable to deliver your service without it, always try to give respondents the option to opt out of giving details on their ethnicity.

A good way to do this is to include a step asking if users are willing to provide you with details of their ethnic group. Design this step to work in the context of your service. For example, if you needed to ask for other personal information such as sexual orientation or whether they had a disability, you may introduce questions about all of these within this particular step.

Explain why you need the data and how you will use it

When you’re honest about why and how you will be using the data you collect, people will be much more likely to answer your question.

For example, if you were running a recruitment survey, you might ask candidates the following question.

What is your ethnic group? (with a drop-down menu of options to choose from)

To encourage candidates to answer this question, you could explain to them why you need to collect this information with something similar to the following.

We need this information to make sure that we’re giving equal opportunities to all candidates.

Always try to be as specific as you can, in order to minimise any possible harm to your response rates.

Let respondents specify a different ethnic group from what you’ve provided

There will always be times when someone may feel they don’t belong to any of the ethnic group categories that you have provided, so you should allow them the option to specify and enter what they think it is. It can also help to inform future changes to your categories, to better reflect how users describe their ethnicity.

Think about accommodating regional differences

Before devising your ethnicity question, think about whether you need to revise it to accommodate regional differences, as slightly different categories are used Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland due to differences in requirements, and to reflect local populations.

Best practice when asking ethnicity in a survey

The standard and recommended way of asking the ethnic group question in England, according to a number of high-profile organisations including the Government Statistical Service is currently as follows:

What is your ethnic group?

(Choose one option that best describes your ethnic group or background)

White

  1. English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British
  2. Irish
  3. Gypsy or Irish Traveller
  4. Any other White background, please describe

Mixed / Multiple ethnic groups

  1. White and Black Caribbean
  2. White and Black African
  3. White and Asian
  4. Any other Mixed / Multiple ethnic background, please describe

 Asian / Asian British

  1. Indian
  2. Pakistani
  3. Bangladeshi
  4. Chinese
  5. Any other Asian background, please describe

 Black / African / Caribbean / Black British

  1. African
  2. Caribbean
  3. Any other Black / African / Caribbean background, please describe

 Other ethnic group

  1. Arab
  2. Any other ethnic group, please describe ____________

Pros and cons of using the ethnicity question

While you should now have a more solid understanding of the ethnicity question, the difference between race, ethnicity and nationality, and a better idea of how to go about asking the ethnicity question, it can also be beneficial to know about some of the benefits and potential drawbacks of this question, to ensure you use it in the best way.

As long as you’re clear about your objectives for collecting data around ethnicity and have worded and set up your questions in the right way, there can be some clear benefits from asking this question.

The Benefits

Helps ensure you’re meeting the needs of all groups in society

When you consider the range of services managed by government and public sector organisations throughout the country and the number of surveys, they typically have to issue to canvas feedback, it’s not hard to appreciate how valuable the ethnicity question is.

Whatever service it may be, having a good knowledge of all the ethnic groups in your community and ensuring their feedback is properly represented is vital in ensuring your services are fair and meet the needs of all groups in your community.

Highlights any areas of discrimination that need to be resolved

Similar to ensuring the distribution of services is fair and effective in your community, asking the ethnicity question can also help to reveal if there are any areas of discrimination blighting particular ethnic groups that you need to address. This is crucial if we are to help engineer a more equal and integrated society moving forward.

Demonstrates that you care about diversity and inclusivity in the workplace

For employee’s fair treatment and opportunities are just as important as a good salary when it comes to considering a place to work. So, organisations that can demonstrate how much they care about diversity and inclusivity in the workplace and can back this up with statistics to highlight the improvements they made, are likely to receive a larger volume of applications whenever they advertise a job.

Limitations

While there are many good reasons for asking the ethnicity question, there can be some drawbacks. However, you’re more likely to experience them if you don’t set up you questions in the right way and you’re not transparent about why and how you will be using the data you’ve collected.

You could risk alienating some of your target audience

As we touched on earlier, if you don’t give respondents sufficient options from which to select an ethnic group that best applies to them or specify the ethnic group they think they belong to, or even the choice to opt out of answering the question altogether, you could risk alienating some of your target audience from participating in your survey.

So, it’s prudent to be aware of the ethnic composition of your community or wider region, so that the options that you provide best reflect that and provide alternative options for answering your question to cover anyone still not happy with the options you have provided.

If you can do that, you should reduce the likelihood of alienating anyone and keep your response rates high.

You could confuse some of your respondents

When you’re devising ethnicity questions for your survey, try not to be swayed into using any new terms or acronyms you may have recently heard about. For example, two increasingly popular ethnicity terms used by government departments and public bodies in more recent times include ‘BAME’ which stands for ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’ and ‘BME’ which stands for Black and Minority Ethnic’.

While these terms may be familiar with the younger generation, older age groups are far less likely to know what they mean. And given that in the majority of cases you’ll be looking to reach out to respondents of all age groups, you’ll want to use terms that the majority are familiar with.

Instead, try to keep things as simple as you can, such as considering the recommended way of asking the ethnic group question in England that we outlined earlier.

You could lose out on beneficial survey data and insight

Whatever survey you’ve constructed and distributed, you will want as many people as possible to complete it, in order to give you largest volume and quality of data to work with.

So, if your ethnicity question is poorly constructed, or you’ve forgotten to properly outline why and how you will be using the data you collect, it could result in many people choosing not to participate in your survey. If that happened, you could potentially lose out on valuable data and insights, which could affect how much you’re able to do with your data as a result.

Further reading

Gender questions: Gender is a complex topic, and a very individual one, and so needs to be approached with care and sensitivity.

Age groups for surveys: How to ask survey respondents for their age in the right way.

Common question types: Other types of survey question to consider for your next questionnaire.

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