Gender Data Limitations of M / F: What are the Common Pitfalls to Avoid?


Full disclosure: I am a trans man and social scientist by trade. I appreciate the complexities of gender data both from personal and professional perspectives. I see the need for balance in this paradigm moment as we continue to deepen and evolve our understanding of gender.

Gender demographic data is foundational to many surveys and forms serving both customers and employees. It is an important and powerful tool to drive employee engagement and business outcomes. Yet, often there are only two response options of female and male. 

With recent changes in federal legislation explicitly including gender identity and expression, Canadian employers are becoming increasingly aware of the needs of transgender and non-binary* employees. This includes gender data collection efforts. With only two response options, a variety of genders remain under- or unrepresented. 

Furthermore, trans and non-binary people experience confusion between the frequently interchangeable use of sex and gender that exists on some organizational forms and surveys. Clear and consistent use of terms is critical to ensuring accurate responses. Also, there is a need for employers to justify inquiries about their employees anatomy with questions about sex assigned at birth, which some may experience as intrusive.   

Given this obvious gap, it is understandable why companies want to quickly identify a solution. However, as a consultant with TransFocus, I have come to appreciate by working with various organizations across diverse sectors that there is not a one size fits all solution. It is not as simple as adding a third checkbox.  

Instead, companies are better off undertaking a carefully defined process to explore the rationale, collection, flow, and application of gender data as a way to clarify solutions going forward for both the organization and transgender employees and customers. 

But first, let’s examine three common gender category pitfalls to avoid.  

At first glance, the added response category of “other” appears to be the most expansive third option. However, many transgender and non-binary people experience this option as problematic and literally “othering.” Also, the data collected in the “other” category does not yield useful or meaningful data that can be applied to decision-making, because it lacks any specificity.

A third category of “transgender” may similarly appear to solve the problem. As a trans man, this option poses a dilemma. Trans men and women are forced to choose between their trans experience and identifying as the men or women that we are. Much like the limitation of only M/F response options, this pitfall leads to continued invisibility within organizational data. 

Another common proposal introduces several different gender categories with select-all-that-apply functionality. This thinking supports what is often the driving objective. That is, respectful inclusion of a diversity of gender identities. However, the select-all-that-apply multiplies the number of categories, which can complicate and confuse data analyses. For example, how do we interpret someone who selects all the categories? Further, the often low numbers of respondents in categories creates a scattering effect. This results in data suppression and a loss of powerful analyses to inform effective organizational decision-making.

In the next blog, I offer five steps to navigate the myriad of options to find the one that is right for your organization.  

*Those whose gender identity (i.e., their deeply-felt innate sense of gender) differs from their sex assigned at birth (their anatomy and body composition).

Gender Data, GeneralAnita Cheung