What's the evidence? Asking about gender

August 2018

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Do technical communicators need to think about gender? I think so. We may be asked to review wording in forms or surveys, we may need to develop personas, and we need to ensure our writing doesn’t alienate readers and give them a bad user experience.

Laughing person with their head tossed back. They are wearing sunglasses and clothing with wide rainbow-coloured stripes. Their right hand is holding a large rainbow-coloured umbrella that is balanced on their right holder.

Image by gagnonm1993

Let’s think about gender questions in surveys. Most of the research has focussed on transgenderism, so that’ll shape our discussion of:

  • terminology
  • the need to ask about gender
  • the number of transgender people
  • the research
  • tips for phrasing gender questions
  • resources.

Sex! and other terms

Thought that would catch your eye! Now that everyone’s paying attention, tell me: is sex the same as gender?

Man: Sex and gender are the same thing!
Woman: So do you want to have gender with me?


Here’s how sociologists view sex and gender (Westbrook & Saperstein, 2015, pp. 536-537):

  1. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are related but distinct concepts.
  2. There are more than two sexes and more than two genders.
  3. A person’s sex or gender identity may not be how others think of them.
  4. Identities and classifications can change over a person’s life.

These definitions are from Stats NZ (2015b, pp. 7-8):

  • Gender: The social and cultural construction based on the expectation of what it means to be a man and/or a woman, including roles, expectations, and behaviour.
  • Gender diverse: Having a gender identity or gender expression that differs from a given society’s dominant gender roles (adapted from Open Society Foundations, 2013).
  • Sex: The distinction between males and females based on the biological differences in sexual characteristics.
  • Trans/transgender: In New Zealand, this is often used as an umbrella term for transgender or transsexual people. It relates to a person whose gender identity differs from their sex recorded at birth.

What’s it to you?

Why do we need to know someone’s gender? The Human Rights Campaign (2016) believes ‘for reporting purposes, employers tend to "over-ask" for demographic data such as age, gender and ethnicity’.

(Just so you know, we’ll talk about two organisations with similar names. There’s the Human Rights Campaign in the US, which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. And the Human Rights Commission in New Zealand, which promotes and protects the rights of everyone in Aotearoa.)

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion at American University agrees: ‘Often the questions are asked because we feel like they should be asked, or because we consider them “standard” demographic questions’ (cited in Fryrear, 2016).

Close-up photo of a right hand holding a pen and filling out a paper form with tick boxes.

Image by andibreit

Which suggests that sometimes knowing someone’s gender may not be important. But sometimes it may be. For example, so we can:

  • address needs. Epidemiologist Greta Bauer and her colleagues write that transgender people face ‘substantial disparities in health and health care access’ (Bauer, Braimoh, Scheim, & Dharma, 2017, p. 2). Difficulty in identifying trans persons in surveys has constrained understanding of their needs and experiences (Bauer et al, 2017; GenIUSS, 2014).
  • address discrimination. According to a 2011 US healthcare report, ‘transgender people, particularly those who are visibly gender non-conforming, are more likely to experience violence in the home, on the street, and in health care settings. Transgender and other gender minority people also report an elevated prevalence of HIV and suicide attempts’ (GenIUSS, 2014, p. iv).
  • provide appropriate medical treatment. For example, sex at birth may be important when prescribing medication that could interact with hormones and DNA (Stats NZ, 2015b).
  • recognise diversity. ‘…by ensuring there are inclusive options, the visibility of the range of gender identities will increase. The Human Rights Commission has found that visibility reduces discrimination’ (Stats NZ, 2015a).
  • create more inclusive workplaces (Stonewall, 2016).

Such inequalities and discrimination still occur in New Zealand. An inquiry by the Human Rights Commission found ‘the lives of trans people in New Zealand are marked by discrimination, severe barriers to equitable health services and limited legal and public recognition of who they are.’ Furthermore, ‘four out of five submissions … described discrimination … Many trans people told the Inquiry they ‘just expect’ discrimination and prejudice from other New Zealanders’ (2008, p. 94).

In 2015, the New Zealand Herald reported that the Human Rights Commission had received sixteen complaints of discrimination against transgender people in five years, such as transgender females being prohibited from joining girls’ teams, using the girls’ toilets, or wearing the girls’ uniform (Leask, 2015). Sixteen may not sound like much, but not all incidents would have been reported, and don’t forget this is a minority group.

How many people are transgender?

Estimates of the number of transgender people range from 0.3 to 1.2 per cent of the population (Conron et al, cited in Scheim & Bauer, 2015; Flores et al, cited in Bauer et al, 2017; Gates, 2011; University of Auckland, 2014). The lower figures are for adult populations, while the 1.2 per cent was from a survey of secondary school students.

Four dots on a graph representing estimates of the percentage of transgender people in a population. Three blue dots close together represent estimates in adult populations, at 0.3, 0.5, and 0.6 per cent. A fourth green dot further right is the estimate for teenagers at 1.2 per cent.

Let’s use 0.5 per cent to keep things simple. In New Zealand’s context, that’s slightly over 24,000 people. A number that would fill half of Eden Park. Or the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship five times over.

A massive white cruise ship anchored at a dock with its stern towards the camera. The words ‘Ovation of the Seas’ are faintly visible on the ship, which dwarfs a boat on the right.

Image by PixbayBlade

What does the research show?

Research has revealed:

  • Gender has not been well measured. Sociologists found that four large, long-running, and influential social surveys in the United States treated sex and gender as binary – male or female. Also, ‘all four surveys conflate sex and gender, do not distinguish between self-identified and other-determined gender, treat sex and gender as obvious, and do not allow a person’s gender to change over time’ (Westbrook & Saperstein, 2015, p. 542). What a contrast this is to current thinking – compare this to the definitions above.
  • Many people don’t know what ‘transgender’ is. ‘Approximately 30% of Americans were unfamiliar with the term “transgender” or unsure of its meaning as recently as 2011’ (cited in Bauer et al, 2017, p. 2).

What about you – can you tell which of these survey responses define it correctly (Barlas, Buttermore, Fahimi, Thomas, & Grosul, 2016)?

  • Identifying as a gender other than the one you were born [sic].
  • I am a man trapped inside of [sic] a woman's body.
  • Conflict between birth-assigned gender and self-perceived gender.
  • Attracted to the opposite sex.
  • Someone born with 2 private parts.
  • Darned if I know but I assume it means my ability to work with both genders.

Only the first three are correct. But the definitions came from survey respondents, with some wrong definitions from those who identified themselves as transgender. Predictably, researchers found that asking outright if someone is transgender gets inaccurate answers. Adding a definition when asking the question does not help (Barlas et al 2016).

A young woman frowning hard at her laptop. She is seated at a table and is wearing glasses, long brown hair, and a white t-shirt.

Image by Bruce Mars

A question like ‘Are you male/female/something else?’ is tricky for gender minorities. First, trans participants ‘[respond] with different dimensions of their own sex/gender’ (Bauer et al, 2017, p. 15), which I think means self-perception vs how people live their lives, etc. Second, it under-identifies trans respondents because some who have transitioned identify simply as male or female. A trans man said ‘I recognize that I have transitioned but it’s not part of my identity’ (Bauer et al, 2017, p. 15). An earlier study reported a similar finding (Tate et al, cited in GenIUSS, 2014). Third, some participants disliked having separate categories for ‘male’ and ‘trans male’ because they felt that implied trans males were ‘a lesser type of man’ (Bauer et al, 2017, p. 15).

Asking two questions is a good way of identifying transgender respondents:

  • Someone’s current gender identity
  • Their sex assigned at birth.

Two questions generate more accurate answers than a single question (Barlas et al, 2016; GenIUSS, 2014) and pose fewer problems for respondents than multiple questions (Bauer et al, 2017).

How to ask?

If you want to ask about gender, first think about why you need the information. The Human Rights Campaign (2016) recommends contemplating:

  • What is the business rationale for asking about gender on the particular form?
  • How does asking for the data relate to your organisation's overall diversity strategy?
  • How will that data be used, protected, and reported? What legal restrictions might there be on collection or storage of demographic data…?

If the information is not essential, could you omit the question? Make it clear that it’s optional? Ask an open-ended question so respondents can self-identify? (Human Rights Campaign, 2016).

If you still want to ask, do:

  • Use the right terminology. Organisations supporting gender minority people often have glossaries, such as RainbowYOUTH’s Useful words.
  • Choose the type of question carefully. Asking respondents to tick all applicable boxes or fill in free-text fields may be better for ‘… studies conducted within trans communities that have shared vocabularies’ than in population surveys’ (Bauer et al, 2017, p. 2).
  • Plus, there may be common survey problems: ticking all applicable boxes may yield contradictory answers, while answers to open-ended questions can be ambiguous and make coding difficult. ‘Moreover, both approaches force researchers to decide in which category to place participants for statistical analysis, a decision better (and more respectfully) made by participants themselves’ (Bauer et al, 2017, p. 2).
  • Ask two separate questions if you need to know who is trans gender: sex at birth and current gender identity. And remember that ‘in general, questions related to sex and gender are considered “sensitive” questions, both by participants and by survey administrators’ (GenIUSS, 2014, p. 20).
  • Ensure complete anonymity. ‘This entails making sure that individuals are not identifiable by tracking down their responses to different questions. Raw data should not be available and reports should only include aggregated sets of data’ (Stonewall, 2016, p. 15).

This is not over-reacting. New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission inquiry found ‘Most trans people experience difficulty having their rights to privacy respected. For many, disclosure resulted in discrimination and other threats to their security’ (2008, p. 4).

What to know more?

Try these resources for more information:


Barlas, F. M., Buttermore, N.R., Fahimi, M., Thomas, R. K., & Grosul, M. (2016). Asking about gender identity in surveys [Slides]. American Association for Public Opinion Research Conference. Retrieved from Growth for Knowledge website: https://www.gfk.com/fileadmin/user_upload/dyna_content/US/documents/2016_AAPOR_Barlas01_Asking_About_Gender_Indentity_in_Surveys.pdf

Bauer, G. R., Braimoh, J., Scheim, A. I., & Dharma, C. (2017). Transgender-inclusive measures of sex/gender for population surveys: Mixed-methods evaluation and recommendations. PLOS ONE, 12(5), e0178043.

Fryrear, A. (2016, Jun 23). How to write gender questions for a survey [Blog post]. Retrieved from Survey Gizmo website: https://www.surveygizmo.com/resources/blog/how-to-write-survey-gender-questions/

Gates, G. J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender? Retrieved from Williams Institute website: https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf

GenIUSS Group. (2014). Best practices for asking questions to identify transgender and other gender minority respondents on population-based surveys. J.L. Herman (Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: the Williams Institute. Retrieved from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/geniuss-report-sep-2014.pdf

Human Rights Campaign. (2016). Collecting transgender-inclusive gender data in workplace. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/collecting-transgender-inclusive-gender-data-in-workplace-and-other-surveys

Human Rights Commission. (2008). To be who I am: Report of the inquiry into discrimination experienced by transgender people. New Zealand: Author. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.co.nz/your-rights/social-equality/our-work/inquiry-discrimination-experienced-transgender-people/

Leask, A. (2015, Jul 2). Details of trans discrimination in NZ revealed. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11474211

Scheim, A. I., & Bauer, G. R. (2015). Sex and gender diversity among transgender persons in Ontario, Canada: Results from a respondent-driven sampling survey. The Journal of Sex Research, 52(1), 1-14.

Stats NZ. (2015a). Frequently asked questions: Statistical standard for gender identity. Retrieved from http://archive.stats.govt.nz/~/media/Statistics/surveys-and-methods/methods/class-stnd/gender-identity/faq-stat-std-gender-identity.pdf

Stats NZ. (2015b). Statistical standard for gender identity. Retrieved from http://archive.stats.govt.nz/~/media/Statistics/surveys-and-methods/methods/class-stnd/gender-identity/stat-std-gender-identity.pdf

Stonewall. (2016). Do ask, do tell: Capturing data on sexual orientation and gender identity globally [Booklet]. Retrieved from https://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/do_ask_do_tell_guide_2016.pdf

University of Auckland. (2014). Youth ’12: Fact sheet about transgender young people. Retrieved from https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/news-events-and-notices/news/news-2014/07/better-care-for-transgender-youth.html

Westbrook, L., & Saperstein, A. (2015). New categories are not enough: Rethinking the measurement of sex and gender in social surveys. Gender & Society, 29(4), 534-560.