Asking about gender in research

STILL A DRAFT, I might tweak it later…

On a couple of occasions lately I’ve had cause to query how gender is being asked about in research studies at the University.  I wanted to make some notes about my thoughts on what is potentially a confusing and difficult area – for scientific and social reasons – that I can point people to when the issue comes up.  I’m not an expert in gender, or in research. So, grab a pinch of salt before reading on.

Screenshot from 2015-12-07 16:02:27Figure 1: The problem

Apparently the University of Southampton does recommend that an “other” option is provided when asking about gender.  I was unable to find the relevant guidance, but have emailed the RGO and will update this post if they can point me to it!

These are just my thoughts, so input from researchers and research participants is welcome, in the comments or by email (r dot gomer at soton dot ac dot uk).

Here’s a typical scenario: “I’m doing a survey.  I want to collect basic demographics about participants for analysis, or just to check how representative my sample is, and I’m going to ask about gender”.  In practice, there are two questions to grapple with here.  1) Should you be asking about gender, and 2) what options should you give to participants?

Aside: Gender vs Sex
A lot of researchers might not have thought about what gender really means* – So here’s a quick note on gender vs sex.  Sex, typically, is a biological (or genetic) concept – It tends to effect things like how tall people are.  Gender is the social construct that (typically) arises from sex.  It’s the set of social expectations about how men and women behave – How they dress, their role in a family, how they behave, or (thankfully less common these days) what jobs they should or shouldn’t do.  Gender arguably has more of an impact on most of us than sex, even if for most people there is a direct mapping from biological sex to the corresponding gender.

* something that seems to be missing from the UK curriculum…


About 0.4% of people identify as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth.  It could be that they identify as the “other” gender, or reject a gender label altogether, feeling themselves neither male nor female.  That’s 1 in 250 people.  Not many, but uncommon either.  In a survey of 1000 people, you can pretty much guarantee that some participants mightn’t think either “male” or “female” is a good description of their gender.

Principle 3 of the Data Protection Act 1998 is that “Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed.”  In practice, this means that (if your participants can be identified from the data you collect) you have a legal obligation to ensure that you’re only collecting the data that are actually required to conduct your research.  If participants are not identifiable (eg in an anonymous online survey) then this isn’t a legal requirement; but it feels like good research practice not to collect data that isn’t necessary to answer your research questions.

As mentioned above, there are two general reasons you might ask about the gender of your research participants:

1) To ensure (or demonstrate) that your sample is representative, or at least to contextualise the data.
2) Because you expect (and will either look for, or control for) gender effects.

Both sound like valid reasons to collect gender, but have different implications for research (below).  Still, in many studies you might not expect to see gender effects, and if you’re not going to test for them then why bother collecting that data at all?

If you ARE testing for gender effects, then you could consider whether identifying as a binary gender should be part of your study inclusion criteria.  If you know you can’t recruit enough participants that identify as something other than male or female to get a statistically meaningful result, then you should consider whether it is ethical to ask those people to give up their time to take part in your research.  Of course, if gender effects are only one of many analyses (for most studies, this is almost certainly the case), then excluding participants on these grounds is likely to be unjustified (and arguably worse than only providing a binary choice).  Perhaps consider just excluding those participants who choose something other than “male” or “female” from the particular tests that relate to gender identity.

So, in practical terms, what should you ask participants?  For most research, where gender is necessary for descriptive purposes or some minor analysis (ie most research) one of the following is probably a good starting point.  I’ve taken the options phrasing from the EHRC guidance on asking about gender for monitoring purposes.

Free text Three Options Four Options
What is your gender?
 Which of the following describes how you think of yourself?
+ Female
+ Male
+ In another way
 Which of the following describes how you think of yourself?
+ Female
+ Male
+ In another way
+ Prefer not to say
  •  Participants can express their gender in their own terms.
  • The most flexible approach.
  • Immediately quantitative
  • Broadly covers everyone, without the use of a clumsy “Other” option
  • Immediately quantitative
  • Broadly covers everyone, without the use of a clumsy “Other” option
  • No pressure to answer
  • Data needs to be coded, probably by hand.  EFFORT.
  • You still need to assign categories in order to do any quantitative analysis.  Unless you’re going to let those categories emerge from the data, then you might as well specify them directly for participants to choose from.
  •  Some participants might feel pressured to answer.
  • If gender is an important aspect of your research, this might cause you to miss out on data.

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