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How to ask about gender and sexual orientation in a survey

How to ask about gender and sexual orientation in a survey

People often shy away from asking about sexuality and gender in surveys. What if you say the wrong thing or use the wrong term? What if you offend someone? These are understandable concerns.

People often shy away from asking about gender in surveys. And the same goes for sexual orientation. What if you say the wrong thing or use the wrong term? What if you offend someone? We get it. But we’re here to help.

As survey experts, SurveyMonkey wants to encourage people to ask questions—but to do it in the best possible way. So how should you ask about gender and sexual orientation in surveys?

Well, we’ve talked to the SurveyMonkey research team and sought guidance from governments and charitable bodies. And we’ve distilled this down into some gender survey question best practice.

After reading, we hope you’ll feel confident about when it’s appropriate to ask about gender and sexual orientation in addition to why and how you should go about it.

Why are you asking?

Before we jump into how to ask these questions, let’s start with the why. To ask questions about gender and sexuality, you need to be clear on the purpose of asking these questions—why do you need to know? What are you going to do with the data you gather? Have you made this clear to those providing the data?

There are many valid reasons for asking questions about sexual orientation and gender identity (survey researchers call them SOGI questions). In fact, the value of gathering data on gender identity was recently highlighted at the governmental level, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) explaining that they need it “to support work on policy development and service provision and to further equality.”

Meanwhile, charitable organisation Stonewall explains that gathering this sort of data “is a strong tool for championing LGBT equality and inclusion.” (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). The organisation explains that employers can use this data to measure their success in promoting inclusion and understand which measures or strategies work well and which don’t.

Or perhaps you ran an event or created a programme whose aim was to support a specific gender or sexual orientation. You might have even received funding for it. In this sort of situation, you’d be justified in asking SOGI questions to demonstrate the success of the programme or event, and uptake among the target group.

What do you need to know?

As well as thinking about whether you really need to ask SOGI questions, you also need to think about what exactly you need to know. Maybe you think you need to have a question on gender in your survey. But do you know if you should ask about sex, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation? Confused? Let’s break that down a bit.

The Council of Europe defines some key terms as follows:

Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply felt individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, and includes the personal sense of the body and other expressions of gender (that is, “gender expression”) such as dress, speech, and mannerisms.

The sex of a person is determined at birth by one’s biology and becomes a social and legal fact from there on.

Sexual orientation refers to each person’s capacity for profound emotional, affectional and sexual attraction for, and intimate and sexual relations with, individuals of a different gender (heterosexual), the same gender (homosexual, lesbian, gay), or more than one gender (bisexual).

Transgender persons include persons who have a gender identity which is different from the gender that was assigned to them at birth, and persons who wish to portray their gender identity in a different way from the gender assigned to them at birth.

Bearing in mind the differences between these terms, think about which you need to ask about. For example, the UK government recommends asking about “gender” rather than “sex” most of the time, unless you’re providing a medical service, in which case “sex” may be more appropriate.

How should you ask these questions?

How to ask about gender in a survey? You need to be careful about the way a survey question on gender or sexuality is worded. If the wording is unclear, people may be confused and your data will be less meaningful. If the wording is inappropriate, you could cause offense.

Always include an opt-out

SOGI questions are very personal, and people completing your survey should always have the option not to answer those they don’t feel comfortable with. “Prefer not to say” is an excellent way to word this.

Use non-binary questions

Asking a question on gender and only providing the options “female” and “male” is not inclusive and can cause offense for those who don’t feel they fall into one of these categories. For a simple change, you can add “other”. Better yet, provide an open text field for people to define their gender identity in their own words, also known as self-identifying.

Provide clear answer options and perhaps definitions

Rather than simply listing “female” you could add a qualifier, such as “including transgender women”. Sometimes it can also be helpful to include a definition of a term. For instance, if you instead decide to include the separate question “Do you identify as transgender?”, you could provide a definition of the term so that respondents understand what it means.

Keep gender identity and sexual orientation separate

Sometimes organisations combine gender identity and sexual orientation into one question. But, as they are two distinct elements of a person’s identity, Stonewall recommends keeping them separate.

If relevant, include an inclusive question for those who have transitioned

It’s important to remember that gender identity is individual. Stonewall clarifies that some people who have transitioned would not use the word “trans” or “transgender” to describe themselves. For these situations, it may be helpful to include a more inclusive question about the history of their gender identity. Stonewall provides an excellent example:

  • Is your gender identity the same as the sex you were assigned at birth?
    • No
    • Yes
    • Prefer not to say

Investigate legal requirements in different countries

Data related to a person’s sexual orientation falls within what the GDPR defines as “special category data”, and there are additional conditions and safeguards you’ll need to meet if you choose to collect this information. See the UK Information Commissioner’s Office for more information.

If you work in a global organisation, you’ll also need to bear in mind that different countries have different laws and requirements, and you will need to comply with all legal requirements before you can  collect and store LGBT data in a given country.

Final recommendations

  • Don’t be shy when it comes to asking about gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • Do think carefully about what data you want to collect and why.
  • Do use appropriate wording—refer to resources below for more information.
  • Do make data security a top priority.

Other resources

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