When taking our surveys, we want to make sure that all research participants feel valued and satisfied that their preferences for how they wish to describe themselves are being respected, not least in terms of gender.
We feel this represents not only ethical research but also best practice research because participants are more likely to be open in their responses if they feel comfortable with the research process itself. This is at the heart of what we do. We see the people who participate in our research as participants and not respondents.
For this reason, we recently decided to review our processes around recording the gender of participants in our surveys.
This was motivated by growing understandings across society of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, and an increasing awareness that the categories of male and female do not fully cover the wide range of gender identities which exist.
The discussion around this is complex (and exciting!), but not one that can be fully explored here.
Suffice it to say that whilst many people identify their gender as male or female (including some people who have transitioned from the gender they were assigned at birth to a different gender); others may identify with a variety of alternative gender identities.
These might include identities such as transgender or nonbinary gender, that is, a gender identity which does not fit within the binary of male and female. Other individuals may prefer to identify as trans men or trans women. This can change for people at different points throughout their lives.
Yet gender questions in many traditional surveys have largely not taken into account gender identities which are different to either male or female, and as such they are often incomplete and insensitive, contributing to greater invisibility of gender minority groups.
Asking broader gender questions by including options other than just male or female such as those outlined above, does require some consideration from a methodological point of view.
One concern is the impact this might have on quotas for projects where there is a need to ensure the sample is nationally representative in terms of gender.
This is of course not to say that gender minority groups aren’t representative of our society, but we simply don’t know to what extent because the Office of National Statistics (ONS) only collects statistics on sex or gender classifications of male and female.
For us, the decision to broaden our gender question is very much about inclusion rather than numbers. In testing this question so far, we have not seen significant proportions of nonbinary gender/different identity participants, and we don’t necessarily expect to.
More important to us is that we continue working to improve the research experience for all our participants. Meanwhile, we still reach our quotas for nationally representative numbers of male (including trans male) and female (including trans female).
In carrying out our review we drew on research by both academics and practitioners, using sources where options had been tested with both transgender and cisgender respondents (a person whose self-identity matches the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; i.e. not transgender).
This means we feel confident that our question wording is both user-friendly and robust.
We’ve now trialled our new gender question in our January 2016 wave of research with the general public through our Charity Awareness Monitor, with great success, and are currently rolling this out in all our surveys.
Coincidentally, the Market Research Society (MRS) – of which we are a member – also issued revised guidelines on collecting data on sex and gender in January 2016, encouraging its members to broaden their gender questions to include options beyond the binary of male and female, as we have done. We feel this is a positive step and are happy that leading industry institutions are also seeing the need for this kind of inclusive approach.
Ultimately we feel it’s important that our research participants are able to identify themselves in the way that they prefer. In the future we’d like to continue regularly examining our question wording for a variety of personal characteristics to ensure that our surveys remain up-to-date and reflective of broader patterns in how individuals describe themselves.
Let us know your thoughts using the comments section below.