how to ask gender in a linguistics study

How do I ask for my participants’ gender and/or sex in a linguistics study?

  • What exactly are you asking for?
  • Why are you asking for this information?
  • What are the unwritten implications of the way you’re asking?
  • How does this serve the people who are giving their time to your research?
A simple MS paint drawing of kirby (in a yellow coat, with lab safety goggles and purple spikey hair) placing a little green stick figure in a beaker. There are three beakers on the table, containing green, red, and blue stick figures)

What information exactly are you asking for?

  • your participants’ identification with ideals of masculinity and femininity
  • your participants’ experiences with gender in early childhood
  • a closer proxy for the anatomy of the vocal apparatus — such as height — or even actually measuring the vocal tract, if you can!
  • whether your participants have a sense of themselves as trans, or within the trans umbrella in some way

Why are you asking for this information?

  • Engage in good research practices! Make a stats plan ahead of time! Do Bonferroni corrections! Consider pre-registering or at least publishing a pre-data collection report on an archive site! Don’t p-hack or HARK!
  • Keep the questions as short and unintrusive as possible. Below I have recommendations about how to tell your participants what you’re asking and why.
  • Consider, rather than asking for “sex,” just ask whether someone would like to be identified as trans (or within the trans umbrella) for the purposes of your study. In my next section I have some suggestions on how to word this in a way that doesn’t suck. One reason to consider including this question in basic demographic surveys is, basically: would you want to know if all your participants were cis? I would.
  • Consider including a write-in option. Yes, I know, this makes certain quantitative analysis harder. Incredibly, I totally also have ideas below for how to deal with that. You’re welcome :)

What are the unwritten implications of how you’re asking?

  • “Man / woman / transgender” this option sucks because it implies that “transgender” is a third gender that is distinct from men and women. That’s not how trans people understand ourselves, or how we operate in the world. Trans men are men and almost always move through the world as men; any differences between trans men and cis men are not due to their not-really-man-ness, but due to structural transphobia. Ditto for trans women, who are women and move through the world as women. Furthermore, not all nonbinary people (whom you might be generously trying to “include” with this phrasing) are/understand themselves as trans?
  • “Man/woman/prefer not to say” — this option sucks because it lumps in people who don’t want to share data with you (e.g. a cis woman who chooses prefer not to say because she worries about sexist bias in your design) with people who DO want to share data with you, but it’s data other than man or woman. You’re just, like, throwing free data in the garbage can! This is both unwise of you, and insulting to the people who are sharing their time with you.
  • “Male/female/other” — this option sucks because 1.) using male and female when you’re asking about social identity ends up feeling confusing for participants. I’ve heard from friends that they can’t tell if you’re asking their ASAB or gender — that means you’re getting messy, conflated, or confounded data; 2.) again, the implication of the other category (without the opportunity to provide further detail) ends up collapsing nonbinary and other trans people in a way that is really confusing for participants as well as sort of nonsensical in how you’re forced to interpret the data.
  • “Biological sex” — don’t ask this. If you’re trying to ask about a possible sex-based trait, ask about that trait.
  • What do you identify as?” — this type of phrasing ends up implying that people aren’t really the gender they say they are. Don’t do that.
  • “Transgender man/man/transgender woman/woman” — do not do this shit. As above, this implies that transgender men aren’t men, ditto trans women. Any variation of this set of options is a no-go. Split it into two questions if you really want to know if someone’s trans!

How does this serve the people who are giving their time to your research?

  • appropriate compensation for their time
  • transparency about how you are using this information
  • respectful communications that never misgender or otherwise harm them, during or after the study, implicitly or explicitly
  • responsible and thoughtful use of the information in your analysis, writeups, and public communications about the research.
  • Put the demographics survey last. This is standard practice in some subfields but not others. I am a syntactician, so I’m often doing grammaticality judgment surveys. I put the demographics survey last to try and avoid priming people to think overly much about their gender identity when I mostly want them to be thinking about whether a relative clause sounds weird or whatever.
  • Include information pop-ups on demographic questions. You know how on many websites, a little question mark icon can show an information pop-up giving further info about something? This is good UI design because it’s common and people know about it — we may as well use it. Your (?) pop-up on a gender multiple choice question might say something like, “Why are we asking this? We ask demographics questions, including your gender, because different people sometimes use language differently. We are interested in whether gender influences the way you parse sentences of this kind. This question is asking for your current gender identity, not your assigned sex at birth or legal sex.”
  • Say it directly in the question. Rather than ask “what gender are you?” it can sometimes be more honest (and more useful!) to ask, “what gender category should we include your data in?” This is great when paired with an open-response question. (It would also be great to include a pop-up bubble saying “We are asking how to categorize you in addition to the answer you provided above, because we analyze data two ways: the unique answer you gave above will help us to understand your responses on an individual level, while your answer to this question will help us understand how populations act on a larger scale.”)

TL;DR:

  • You need to be clear about what information you are actually asking for. Think carefully about whether your research question is about gender, or sex traits, or both. Think about whether you need to know whether or not your participants are trans.
  • Your research question and hypothesis should have a clear reason why you think this data is relevant. You should have done your homework on what causal relationships might exist between (linguistic behaviors) and (gender stuff).
  • You should design your questions in a way that doesn’t implicitly misgender people; you should work under the assumption that people are the gender they say they are.
  • You should plan your research in a way that 1.) does not harm the people who are giving their time and expertise to your study, either during or after they take part in it, and 2.) is appropriate and respectful of their time and expertise.

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Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.

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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.

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