When it comes to survey questions, there are some questions that can prove rather sensitive, particularly those based on demographics, which are typically used to gather essential background information about a survey participant.
Questions around gender are a good example of this. Gender is quite a complex topic, given the many facets to how people view themselves, which can lead into discussions around ‘sexuality’, ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’.
What are demographics?
Essentially demographic questions are those that look to better understand the identity of a particular respondent, by identifying which groups they fit into within the general population.
They aim to achieve this by categorising the answers of individuals to a series of demographic questions, based on factors ranging from age, ethnicity and gender, to education, marital status, employment and location.
Gender options for a survey
People can often feel uncomfortable about asking questions about a person’s gender or sexuality in a survey, worried that if they say the wrong thing or use the incorrect term, they could easily offend someone.
However, that doesn’t mean you should steer clear of these questions. Instead, you should know why you’re asking them and how you’ll be using the data, as clarity around this will help ensure you create better, more intentional questions.
For example, the office for National Statistics (ONS), recently explained why they were looking at collecting information on gender identity, in addition to their existing question on sex, in order to better support work on policy development, service provision and to further equality.
Collecting this information can also be beneficial for employers of all shapes and sizes, as the data can allow them to measure how successful they have been in promoting inclusion, or what more they need to do to improve their work in this area.
However, before examining any of the issues around gender in a survey, it’s important to be reasonably familiar with them first. Here’s some of the key terms explained, as defined by the Council of Europe.
Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that differentiate men and women. Being defined as male or female, happens at birth and becomes a social and legal fact from that point on.
Our gender identity refers to the gender to which we feel we belong, which may or may not be the same as the sex that was assigned to us at birth. It refers to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender including the personal sense of our body and other expressions, such as dress, speech and mannerisms.
Refers to a person’s emotional and sexual attraction to males, females, both or neither. Sexual orientation is not linked to gender identity. For example, a transgender man may be heterosexual or gay in the same way that another man may be heterosexual or gay. However, these two aspects of identity are often linked by people and affect how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are treated and perceived.
Is an umbrella term used to describe people who have a gender identity, which is different from the gender that was assigned to them at birth and wish to portray their gender identity in a way that is different from their gender at birth.
Given the differences in the terms discussed, think about which ones you need to ask and the best way to ask them, depending on your survey needs. For example, if you work in healthcare and were doing a patient feedback survey about a medical service you had been providing you might want to use the term ‘sex’, as opposed to word ‘gender’ which might be more appropriate for another more generic survey, such as a customer satisfaction survey.
How to ask the gender question
Whatever gender options you have considered and then decided on using in your survey, you still need to ask these questions in the right way, if you’re to gain the most value from their use.
First and foremost, you need to ensure that any survey questions on gender or sexuality are carefully worded. If the wording is unclear, you could confuse people and your data will be less meaningful. Worse still, if your wording is inappropriate, you could cause offense.
Think about including an opt-out
Questions around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) can be very personal. So, you should always offer respondents the option not to answer anything they feel uncomfortable with. The phrase “Prefer not to say” is a good example of how you could word this.
Offer non-binary options
In today’s society where there are more than two accepted gender roles, it’s no longer inclusive to only provide two options “female” and “male” for people to identify with, as this can cause offense to those who feel they don’t fall into either category. It’s better to give them more options, including an open ‘other’ text field if they want to define their gender in their own words, otherwise known as ‘self-identifying’.
A good example is as follows.
What gender do you identify as?
[ ] Male
[ ] Female
[ ] Trans-gender
[ ] Non-binary
[ ] Prefer not to answer
[ ] Other________
Alternatively, you may prefer a more simplified version such as:
[ ] Male
[ ] Female
[ ] Or do you describe yourself in another way (write in gender identity)
Keep questions about gender identity and sexual orientation separate
Sometimes organisations combine gender identity and sexual orientation into one question. However, as they are two distinct elements of a person’s identity, you would be better off keeping them separate.
Although sexual orientation questions are typically not used as much as gender identity questions in surveys and questionnaires, their use is more commonplace in some government and public sector surveys, to monitor the equality of groups of people with different sexual orientation. And when the question is included, it’s usually presented as voluntary.
A good example is as follows:
Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation? (Note: This question is voluntary)
[ ] Straight/Heterosexual
[ ] Gay or Lesbian
[ ] Bisexual
[ ] Other sexual orientation (write in)
Pros and cons of using the gender question
While we’ve provided a good overview of gender questions, some of its key terms and how to go about asking questions around this topic, it can also be useful to know about some of the potential benefits and drawbacks to asking the gender question, to help ensure you use it in the best way.
Screen out those who are not relevant to your survey:
Depending on the type of survey you’re carrying out and the topic of your content, knowing the gender identity of your respondent, particularly early on could be extremely valuable.
For example, if you were a manufacturer of female healthcare products you could use a gender based demographic question at the start of your survey, to screen out male respondents and ensure only female respondents could move on and complete your survey.
Maximise the targeting and effectiveness of your marketing efforts:
Continuing with the above example, with irrelevant respondents removed from participating in your survey, it could strengthen the targeting and effectiveness of your marketing efforts, knowing that the audience that remains are likely to be the most interested in answering and completing your survey.
Build stronger surveys
Gender issues and the gender question are all part of the wider debate around inclusivity. And inclusive surveys are all about being conscious and careful about how you ask questions about gender and other sensitive issues that can include anything from ethnicity and religion to household income and age.
From the language you use to taking account of accessibility issues. When you’re able to better consider your respondents’ experience from many perspectives and prioritise inclusion, it can be hugely beneficial to your survey’s impact, paving the way for richer and more valuable data.
Make your organisation appear more inclusive and a more attractive place to work
These days organisations that can claim to promote diversity, equality and fair treatment are seen to be at an advantage over their competitors in terms of their overall performance, with the collection and analysis of demographic data essential to this process.
However, you still need to be able to present and ask these questions in the right way. If you’re able to achieve that, your standing among the wider population as an inclusive and attractive place to work will only continue to get better.
While there are some definite advantages to asking the gender question, there can be some drawbacks too. However, you’re more likely to experience them if you didn’t frame your questions up correctly in the first place.
You could risk offending someone
As we have already discussed, if you don’t give respondents sufficient options to describe their gender identity, or even the opportunity to opt out of answering this question altogether, you could risk offending someone. You can then run the risk of them telling others about their experience, which could negatively affect other peoples’ perception of your organisation.
You could miss out on valuable survey data and insight
Ultimately, when you send out your survey, you want as many people as possible to complete it, to help maximise your response rate and the quality of data you have to work with. Subsequently, if your gender question is poorly constructed, 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 be particularly damaging if you were running a small, niche survey, that was reliant on having as many completed responses as possible.
Your data could be less representative
Gender related demographic questions in surveys can now be viewed as biased if they fail to capture other gender orientations in a population. And if you don’t correct this imbalance within your own survey questions, you could be left with data that’s not truly representative of the groups that you’ve tried to reach out to.
Age groups for surveys: How to ask for respondents’ age in your survey.
Common types of survey question: Other question types to use in your next survey.
Working Women: An example of a research project based around gender, on the best places for women to work and live.