Inclusive Gender Options for Surveys

Philip Cleave
November 17, 2022
Picture depicting female and male genders

When it comes to survey questions, people often shy away from asking anything about gender or sexuality. This can be for a variety of reasons, whether that’s due to worry about using the incorrect term or saying the wrong thing, to inadvertently offending someone.

Whatever the reason, these are understandable concerns given the complexities around the topic of gender and how different people view themselves. However, as with many other questions based on demographics such as age, they can help you gather essential background information about a survey participant. From here you’re able to slice and dice information, which in some cases can help you to explain why some groups may have answered something in a particular way.

However, the reasons for asking gender questions in surveys are often a bit more detailed than that, which we will go onto look at next, before looking at inclusive gender options for surveys.

Why ask gender questions in a survey?

Consider for a minute the purpose of your survey. While every survey will have a specific objective it needs to meet, you still need to communicate to respondents how much you want and value their opinion, if you’re to encourage as many of them as possible to complete it and maximize your survey’s success. This is where the benefit of including gender questions and inclusive gender options can pay dividends.

Get richer and more valuable data insights

From the language you use to your sensitivity towards accessibility issues. Ultimately, when you’re better able to embrace issues around inclusivity and consider your respondents’ experience from many perspectives, you’re more likely to receive richer and more valuable data insights.

Screen out respondents who are not relevant to your survey

At times, surveys are aimed at specific gender categories simply due to the fact that a survey’s topic is targeted at a specific gender audience, for example, beard trimming kits for men.

In such a scenario a gender disqualification question at the beginning of your survey, could be useful in disqualifying women and ensuring only men went on to complete it.

Get a competitive edge over your competitors

Promoting greater diversity, equality and inclusivity through the questions you ask in staff surveys can improve your reputation among your peers. And if you can also create more inclusive policies off the back of the feedback you receive, it should help you to retain more staff and attract the better talent to give you a competitive edge in your market.

When to ask about gender in surveys

While you should now have a better idea about how and where gender questions can benefit you, given their sensitivity, you still need to be clear about your own use of gender survey questions, reviewing them on a case-by-case basis.

Quite often gender questions are asked because businesses feel like they should ask them, as they’re seen as a ‘standard’ demographic question, rather than something best used to help some other process such as cross-tabulation.

Subsequently, organization’s such as the Center for Equalities and Inclusion suggest taking your time before coming to a decision over their use. This is particularly relevant for employers when considering whether they really need the demographic information they typically ask for in staff satisfaction and employee engagement surveys.

To help become better informed about your own purpose for using these questions, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a strong valid reason why our survey needs to collect information around gender, sex and/or sexual orientation?
  • How would we use the information we collect?
  • Would this data be broken down by category or used for cross tabulation purposes?
  • How would we make it clear to respondents, our reasons for wanting to collect this data?

If the answers you get to most of these questions are compelling, it should make it a lot clearer to you about your own justifications for using gender questions.

The rationale for using gender questions will vary depending on your company and its mission.

For example, the justification for charitable organization Stonewall in gathering data on gender questions is that it provides them with a strong tool for championing LGBT equality and inclusion. In addition, the organization encourages employers to use this data to measure their own success in promoting inclusion and improving their understanding about what strategies work well and which don’t.

Understanding the gender terms you need to use

Besides thinking about whether you really need to ask questions on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), you also need to fully understand all the key terms associated with it, otherwise you could risk causing confusion or worse still offending someone.

Here are some explanations of the key terms, as defined by the Council of Europe.

Gender identity

Gender identity refers to our deep-felt individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex that was assigned to us at birth. It also encompasses our own personal sense of our body and gender expressions involving dress, speech and mannerisms.


Our biological and physiological characteristics are what differentiates men and women. The sex of a person is determined at birth and becomes a social and legal fact from there onwards.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s capacity for emotional and sexual attraction, and intimate and sexual relations with individuals of a different gender (heterosexual), the same gender (homosexual, lesbian, gay), or more than one gender (bisexual).


Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe an individual who has a gender identity which is different to the one that was assigned to them at birth and who wishes to portray their gender identity in a different way from their gender at birth.

How to ask about gender in surveys

Having justified your own reasons for asking gender questions in surveys, you’ll want to know what’s the best way to ask them and how to make them as inclusive as possible.

Here’s a handy checklist of considerations to help you:

Be careful with your wording

As we’ve already stated earlier, it’s very easy to cause confusion and worse still offense, if you’ve used the wrong term or your wording is unclear.

Therefore, when writing survey questions on gender or sexuality be very careful with your choice of words.

Offer more inclusive options

To encourage as many people as you can to answer gender questions you need to make them as inclusive as you can.

Subsequently, it’s always prudent to offer individuals an ‘opt-out’ on answering anything they don’t feel comfortable with.

Similarly, only offering ‘male’ or ‘female’ answer options on gender questions is not inclusive and can easily cause offense to someone who doesn’t feel either option applies to them. Therefore, it’s more inclusive to provide some non-binary options for them to select from, or even an open text field for those that prefer to define their gender in their own words.

Offer clearer answer options and maybe definitions too

Think too about the answer options you’re providing. Are you making it as simple as you can for people to select an option?

For example, rather than simply listing ‘female’ you could also add a caveat such as ‘including transgender women’.

It can also be helpful to provide definitions of particular terms. For example, if you decided to include a separate question such as ‘Do you see yourself as transgender? You might want to provide a definition of that term, so you can ensure that everyone reading it can understand what it means.

Where relevant, include an inclusive question for those who have transitioned

When it comes to gender, it’s important to remember that gender identity is individual.

For example, it’s quite possible that for some individuals who have transitioned, they would not want to use the word “trans” or “transgender” to describe themselves. Therefore, in these situations, it may be more helpful to include a more inclusive question about the history of their gender identity, such as the following.

Is your gender identity the same as the sex that was assigned to you at birth?

More information about answering SOGI questions including examples is available on our gender questions page.

Final thoughts

Having read through this blog, we hope you will feel more comfortable about when and how to ask gender questions in surveys, including how to make your options more inclusive for respondents answering them.

There’s no need to be shy when it comes to asking gender identity and sexual orientation questions. As long as you’ve worded them in the right way and made them sufficiently inclusive, they should add value to your survey, both in terms of improving your response rate and the quality of data you get back.

Start getting the feedback you need

When you’re asking questions in the right way, and you have the best survey tools to support you, you’ll be able to reach and engage more people to get the feedback you need.

Get started and create your first survey

If you would like more information then please get in touch.