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Sex and Gender Data Collection Guidance

The following guidelines are based on current best practices and are intended to help researchers collect accurate and representative data while respecting their subjects’ needs. 

1. Do you really need this information?

Consider whether you really need to ask about sex and/or gender. Sex/gender is an important subject to study, and there are many cases where it will form an key component of the analysis. That said, don’t simply collect this information by default where it is not in fact relevant. 

2. Sex and gender are not the same.

Gender is a societal role which an individual may fulfil in various ways, while sex is a biological category related to chromosomes, hormones, and physical characteristics. (See e.g. www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943 for a fuller discussion of the biological underpinnings of sex.) The two categories are interrelated, and gender may have biomedical effects while sex may influence social and cultural traits. Nevertheless, they are distinct and should not be conflated. 

3. Let participants define their own gender.

If it is necessary to collect gender information, best practice is to let participants enter their own response in a text box, rather than providing a pre-determined list of options. This allows for a more accurate representation of the data. While it does create a bit more work for the researchers -- for example, answers of ‘f’, ‘F’, ‘female’, ‘woman’ and misspellings thereof may need to be binned together for analysis -- we have found the additional labor to be minimal, even in studies with several hundred participants.

4. Keep lists inclusive and flexible.

If free response text boxes are truly not possible, your pre-determined list of gender options should be as inclusive and flexible as possible. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Rather than radio buttons which restrict participants to a single choice, allow them to check multiple boxes.
  • Include additional categories other than ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’, such as ‘Non-binary’, ‘Agender’, and ‘Gender fluid’.
  • Include a ‘Not listed’ option for those whose gender is not included in your list. Use this instead of ‘Other’, which is alienating. Include an opt-out, such as ‘Prefer not to say’.
  • Use ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ rather than ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ when talking about gender.
  • ‘Trans’ is not a gender, and ‘Trans man’ and ‘Trans woman’ should not be listed separately from ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’. If you need to know whether your participants are trans, that should be a separate question.
  • Sexuality, such as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, etc., is separate from gender, and should be asked as a distinct question if that information is needed.

5. Sex is complex and not binary.

Many of the same principles described above for gender also apply to asking about sex. Unless further specified, sex is usually assumed to mean the sex a participant was assigned at birth. Wherever possible, let participants fill in a text box. If checkboxes are necessary, include options such as ‘Male’, ‘Female’, ‘Intersex’, and ‘Not listed’. Be aware that sex is biologically complex, with several contributing factors. Think about which aspects of sex are relevant and consider asking about them specifically (e.g. hormone status).

6. Keep participants fully informed.

Wherever possible, tell participants why you need this information, and what you plan to do with the data. Bear in mind the implications for privacy and identifiability, especially in combination with other demographic data, when a subject has a less-common gender or sex. For example, such a disclosure might look something like the following (adapted from the FAccT conference):

“Unless you opt to provide your name and contact information, your answers will be anonymous. Individual-level responses to the survey will be seen only by the researchers. We may report summary statistics of the results publicly. However, we will not report write-in categories that contain fewer than 5 respondents. After the study responses have been analyzed, we will delete individual responses and retain only the summary quantities.”

 

Resources/Further Reading 

A much more detailed set of guidelines, including definitions for a number of terms, can be found here: HCI Gender Guidelines. This page is aimed specifically at human-computer interaction researchers, but its content is broadly relevant.

The following links provide extra information on the topic of sex and gender. Some of these resources may require you to be on the Swarthmore network or VPN to access them.

Sex and gender analysis improves science and engineering 

Gender (mis)measurement: Guidelines for respecting gender diversity in psychological research

Beyond a catalogue of differences: a theoretical frame and good practice guidelines for researching sex/gender in human health

Sex/Gender and the Biosocial Turn

How to do better with gender on surveys: a guide for HCI researchers

Best Practices for Collecting Gender and Sex Data (arxiv.org) 

Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia - Scientific American Blog Network

Transgender Language Reform

Study: This Whole Thing Smacks of Gender (Albert & Delano 2021)