how to ask gender in a linguistics study

I get asked this a lot! This will be a short, informal version of work I’m in the process of writing up for formal publication in linguistics — it’s not yet peer reviewed, I’m not putting a ton of time into citations, and I’m not going to go deeply into technical details. I am, however, writing with an audience in mind of people who do linguistics research, a group which includes students at all levels as well as faculty and professionals in industry. My advice should be basically applicable across that wide range of folks, but if you have specific questions about this, feel free to ask me on twitter!

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

The implicit question, which people usually don’t say outright, is: how do I ask for gender/sex without (getting accused of) being transphobic or cissexist?

  • 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)
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?

I have a previous post that goes into this in more detail, but the basic gist here is that you need to know whether you’re asking about gender, sex, or both. This is not an easy either/or answer! For one thing, both gender and sex are complex, multi-faceted collections of traits, experiences, and life trajectories that people may experience variably over the course of their lives, or in different contexts.

  • 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?

Equally crucial to the research design is not just what you’re asking (about someone’s gender or sex) but why you’re asking it. To take an example from above, are you asking for someone’s “biological sex” (an imprecise and unhelpful term!) because you think it might correlate with creaky voice?

  • 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?

It is awfully tempting to make this section into a “Wall of Shame” section, showing really bad examples of how NOT to ask about sex/gender. I have so many screenshots. People send them to me. However, in the interest of actually being constructive, instead I’ll just speak to some very common mistakes:

  • “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?

I intentionally am not phrasing this with words like “the community” or “participants” for this section, because I really want you to think of everyone who takes part in your study as a person who is generously donating their time and sometimes personal information to help you, out of the sheer goodness of their heart. You OWE them the following:

  • 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.
  • 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:

The way to avoid being transphobic or cissexist in your research design depends on what you’re doing! But there are a few general things you can do to think it through:

  • 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.

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.