Are two genders enough?

A couple of times recently I have had a several discussions with research colleagues about whether simply asking Male/Female is adequate or even fair in this day and age. Before, discussing the number of options it may be best to clarify what is meant, at least by social scientists by gender versus sex.

Asking whether somebody’s sex is male or female is interpreted as referring to their biology. If they have a Y chromosome they are male, if they don’t they are female. This difference is of interest to some people, for example the Olympics testing committee, but of little relevance to marketers. Gender, by contrast, tends to be used to describe the way people express themselves through the way they live their lives. Live as a woman? Click female. Live as a man? Then click male. This definition is useful to marketers as is describes how people behave in the market.

Of course, in wording the question in the survey it is not necessary, or even desirable, to distinguish between sex and gender. My preferred question is to ask “Are you …” with the options Male and Female. With this question I tend to avoid using images, unless they are the fairly anodyne toilet door type symbols (as opposed to the more inscrutable toilet door symbols).

But, are two options enough? There are a large number of people in society for whom the term male and female is either too deterministic or problematic. (There is considerable debate about the percentage of society who are transgender, for example, but the number is definitely large in absolute terms). For these people, two options can be seen as both restrictive and dismissive. So, can we, and should we, extend the options available in our gender question?

One option, for extending the gender options, is simply to add other. However, when I have tried this option in face-to-face situations it has elicited considerable confusion amongst respondents. Faced with Male/Female/Other, most respondents query what other might be. In a face-to-face situation, a quick explanation about the alternatives quickly removes the confusion, but in an increasingly online world there is no interviewer to make things clear.

Another option is to put something like transgender as one of the options. Interestingly, every time I have seen this done it is listed third in the list, i.e. Male/Female/Transgender. One issue here, and one that the LGBT community has highlighted, is that transgender is not the only term that is used or understood, and it is a term whose meaning has changed over time. For a bit more insight into gender identity terms click here.

So, what should we do? Well, I don’t have a magic answer. One option might be to amend data collection software so that respondents could always add their own categories to any question (plenty of other questions are also ambiguous when you look closely at them, for example, where do you live, relationship status, family structure etc).

Maybe two useful ideas would be to either ask:

    A) ‘Which of the following best describes you . . . Male/Female’ – where we are implying by using the term ‘best’ we recognise there are other possibilities.

    B) ‘Are you . . . Male/Female/Other, e.g. transgender’ – where transgender is simply used as an example of the other possibilities.

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