LGBTQ Week: Do you need to ask about sex & gender on your survey? By Joseph Van Matre

Curator note: This article was originally published in 2017 but we thought it would make a great addition to this week. We often rerun articles as part of our “Best of AEA365 series.”

Happy LGBTQ+ Evaluator Week! I’m Joseph Van Matre, an institutional research analyst at the University of California*.

Surveys are an integral part of evaluation, and when designing a survey, gender is often the second question after name. We add it to our surveys without a second thought. But do we need to know?

Evaluators are, by our nature, curious people, but evaluations are not fishing expeditions. Look carefully at the program’s theory of action and your own evaluation plan.

Cool Trick: Ask yourself:

  • Is this program targeted at a particular sex or gender (they’re different!)?
  • Is there reason to believe that this program will have a differential impact on participants/subjects of different genders or sexes?
  • Do you need to collect gender/sex information of everyone involved in the program, or just some participants (e.g. teachers and students?)
  • Do you have the time, resources, and mandate to evaluate and report on gender/sex differentials?

While our first instinct is to collect as much data as possible about the programs and interventions that we evaluate, it is our responsibility not to collect and store personal information that we do not need. If you will not or cannot use information on someone’s sex or gender, you do not need to ask in the first place.

Ask for what you need to know. Unless you are evaluating a health-related program, you probably only want to ask about a person’s gender.

It is often best to allow people to identify their gender in an open ended way: I identify my gender as ___________. With large-scale surveys, you can provide male, female and an open response so that you only manually code responses that are not male or female.

Hot Tip:

Some government agencies or funders may require rigid gender reporting. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) requires colleges and universities to report the gender of every student as either male or female. Even unknown or missing is not an option, leading to some very strange reporting outcomes.

While dreadfully cliché, the adage, “say what you mean and mean what you say,” is an important rule when reporting evaluation outcomes related to sex and gender.  Your forethought and planning will make your communication inclusive and accurate.

Cool Trick:

For example, when you ask people to identify their gender on a survey, the phrase, “there were 24 men in our sample” can be replaced by, “27 people in our sample identified themselves as male.”

It is our job to continually educate ourselves about the people and programs we evaluate, and any population is likely to include people who do not fall within the gender binary. Asking for exactly what you need (or not asking at all!) is a simple way to create more inclusive evaluations.

* The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, positions or policy of the University of California.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating LGBT TIG Week with our colleagues in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Issues Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our LGBT TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators.

5 thoughts on “LGBTQ Week: Do you need to ask about sex & gender on your survey? By Joseph Van Matre”

  1. Hi Joseph,
    Your article is so timely and relevant, even when published again 3 years later. I work in a post-secondary institution and we have been moving the needle steadily towards being more inclusive and moving away from only the gender binary. While we do still ask our students to declare, however we have more options than just male and female now. As well, students, faculty and staff are free to not declare/disclose. It’s an important move towards acknowledging the many wonderful differences that exist.
    I am currently taking a course in program evaluation and as you can imagine, much of our evaluation design includes the use of surveys and questionnaires to generate data. Your post has caused me to pause and reflect to consciously decide when the data regarding gender is really necessary. As you so perfectly put it, “asking for exactly what you need (or not asking at all!) is a simple way to create more inclusive evaluations”. With the current focus (rightly so) on equity, diversity and inclusion, your post helps us all to make more thoughtful choices in program evaluation.
    Thank you!

  2. This article really resonated with me. As part of a team at my school that has conducted a few school-wide surveys, we have questioned ourselves in whether or not to include gender/sex as one of the questions. As you note, we really need to decide if the information is truly relevant. I feel that the age of the audience is also important to consider. If the information is necessary, but the audience is younger, then the phrasing really needs to reflect that. I like the idea of allowing for respondents to fill in their own answer, in lieu of a multiple-choice style response.
    If the information will be collected but not used, then we need to reflect on why we feel the need to include the question. If the survey is about students feeling respected and valued, this might be important information. But, if the survey is about course offerings, then the information is irrelevant.
    This post really forces us to evaluate our thinking and approach. For so many of the rest of the questions, unnecessary information is avoided, so why not re-imagine our questions that put people into categories?

  3. Hi,

    I’m an PME student taking a course in evaluation this semester and one of our assignment is to reach out to the community and comment on an article of our choosing. I’m really glad I found your article on the necessity of collecting sex & gender in a survey. I agree that as curious beings we sometimes collect more data than needed when designing a survey. In my own professional work, I have recently reviewed an existing survey after taking a course on Gender Base Analysis. I realized that not only do we collect sex & gender information, we also use gender and sex interchangeably!

    I find the tips provided in your article very useful and I’m happy to see changes in our surveys. I understand that sometimes government agencies have a more rigid approach; but being in a government section; I’m happy to say that we are making changes in including diversity and inclusion.

    Thank you!

  4. Hello Joseph Van Matre,
    My name is Alexa Cabral and I am a teacher in Ontario, Canada. I am currently enrolled in the Professional Maters of Education program at Queen’s University and have come across your article entitled “LGBTQ Week: Do you need to ask about sex & gender on your survey?” for my Program and Inquiry course.
    The idea around gender and constantly feeling the need to ask has sparked my interest over the last two years. As an educator, I was quick to realize how many adults still carried around bad ‘gender-specific’ habits within our schools and classrooms. Things such as, “ girls line up here and boys line up there” or “boy homework bins go here and girl homework bins go there” or “boys VS girls” in sports or games. It blows my mind that such things still happen but it’s even scarier that it often happens without them even realizing they are doing something (and something not morally right either)… would you agree?
    I have found myself diving into LGBTQ events and communities to allow myself the space and time to learn and understand. Having close friends and family members who don’t conform to one specific gender, I do take this with a big heart and understand that my students will never be the same. No two are alike and it’s beautiful. I do agree that one of the most important things we need to do and ensure moving forward is educating ourselves. I hope to continue to bring these dilemmas and topics into the classroom in order for students to chime in and have their voice hear over the matter.
    I appreciated your ‘hot tips’ and ‘cool tricks’ . I do believe that we can word things differently in order to create more inclusion in our learning communities. Using a different language (terminology) can help ensure everyone feels safe and welcomed and will contribute to our growth. I hope to implement some of these tricks in my classroom this year to ensure no student feels left out or left behind.
    I look forward to hearing from you.
    Stay safe and be well,
    P.S. If you have any great advice for a new teacher stepping back into the classroom with regards to inclusivity, I would love to hear it 🙂

  5. Sheila,
    This is a great article! The idea of always asking about gender is something that has come up with surveys we have conducted at the school where I teach. I really like the Cool Trick in the article. If we ask ourselves why we include the gender question in the survey, then perhaps we will rethink including it. One of the ideas presented is to give three options for answers: Male, Female, Other (with a space to fill in an answer). While I understand that this allows for a myriad of answers, I do worry that, particularly youth, may feel “less than” in this situation. If gender is essential, perhaps the suggested question of “I identify my gender as ___________” is the best option, even in larger surveys?
    This article really has me questioning the usefulness of the inclusion of gender in most surveys. If the gender data is of no consequence, then asking for it is unnecessary. It would be interesting to see if there are any impacts to survey completion by eliminating this, when possible.
    Thank you for including this really important article. As my city’s pride month is underway, and the school year is about to start, you have really got me thinking. I know that this will impact the intro questionnaires I use for my classes this fall.


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