Archive for March, 2016

Asking about gender and sexual orientation on surveys

When composing questionnaires, there are times when the simplest of questions have to adjust to fit the times. Questions we draft become catalysts for larger discussions. That has been the case with what was once the most basic of all questions – asking a respondent for their gender.

This is probably the most commonly asked question in the history of survey research. And it seems basic – we typically just ask:

  • Are you… male or female?

Or, if we are working with younger respondents, we ask:

  • Are you … a boy or a girl?

The question is almost never refused and I’ve never seen any research to suggest this is anything other than a highly reliable measure.

Simple, right?

But, we are in the midst of an important shift in the social norms towards alternative gender classifications. Traditionally, meaning up until a couple of years ago, if we wanted to classify homosexual respondents we wouldn’t come right out and ask the question, for fear that it would be refused or be found to be an offensive question for many respondents. Instead, we would tend to ask respondents to check off a list of causes that they support. If they chose “gay rights”, we would then go ahead and ask if they were gay or straight. Perhaps this was too politically correct, but it was an effective way to classify respondents in a way that wasn’t likely to offend.

We no longer ask it that way. We still ask if the respondent is male or female, but we follow up to ask if they are heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc.

We recently completed a study among 4-year college students where we posed this question.  Results were as follows:

  • Heterosexual = 81%
  • Bisexual = 8%
  • Lesbian = 3%
  • Gay = 2%
  • Transgender = 1%
  • Other = 2%
  • Refused to answer = 3%

First, it should be noted that 3% refused to answer is less than the 4% that refused to answer the race/ethnicity question on the same survey.  Conclusion:  asking today’s college students about sexual orientation is less sensitive than asking them about their race/ethnicity.

Second, it is more important than ever to ask this question. These data show that about 1 in 5 college students identify as NOT being heterosexual. Researchers need to start viewing these students as a segment, just as we do age or race. This is the reality of the Millennial market:  they are more likely to self-identify as not being heterosexual and more likely to be accepting of alternative lifestyles. Failure to understand this group results in a failure to truly understand the generation.

We have had three different clients ask us if we should start asking this question younger – to high school or middle school students. For now, we are advising against it unless the study has clear objectives that point to a need. Our reasoning for this is not that we feel the kids will find the question to be offensive, but that their parents and educators (whom we are often reliant on to be able to survey minors) might. We think that will change over time as well.

So, perhaps nothing is as simple as it seems.