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Questions about sex and gender

There is increasing public discussion about gender identity and fluidity. While only a minority of people may be directly affected by this, it is a reminder to market and social researchers to review the way they ask the question about sex or gender.
Researchers have a responsibility to respect participants and reflect their wishes in how to describe themselves wherever possible. Checking that this question is inclusive and does not irritate participants will help in this goal.

The first thing to consider is, do you use the term sex or gender?
They are often used interchangeably and research findings suggest that for the great majority of people (around 98%) there is a clear correlation between sex and gender. They are, however, distinct concepts.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Standard for Sex and Gender Variables 2016 defines the terms as follows:

  • Sex refers to a person’s biological characteristics. This is assigned at birth and relatively fixed. Operationally, it is a distinction between male, female and others who do not have the biological characteristics typically associated with either the male or female sex.
  • Gender refers to the way a person identifies their masculine or feminine characteristics. Operationally, it is the distinction between male, female and genders which are a combination of male and female or neither male nor female, as reported by the individual.

Which term do you use?
You could ask about sex or gender depending on the focus of the research project and any other information with which it may be analysed or compared.

Note that the Australian Government Guidelines on Recognition of Sex and Gender states that ‘the preferred approach is for Australian Government departments and agencies to collect gender information.’ Gender relates to a person’s identity and may be more appropriate or relevant for research purposes.

How do you frame the question?
As people become more aware of and sensitive to the issue of gender identity, you may wish to consider an introduction giving the reason for asking the question.

You should also allow, at least an ‘other’ response to the question, perhaps with a ‘please specify’. Research on specific topics, such as medical or social research may require more detail.

The ABS Standard for Sex and Gender Variables 2016 and the MRS Guidance note on Collecting Data on Sex and Gender provide further guidance on introductory information and detailed responses.

Personal identified information about sex or gender is sensitive information as defined by the Privacy Act 1988, so participants have a right to withhold the information – you must allow a ‘prefer not to say’ response.

The final question you may want to ask yourself is – do you need to ask this question at all?

For more detailed information on this topic, refer to:
Australian Bureau of Statistics Standard for Sex and Gender Variables, 2016: cat no.1200.0.55.012
Australian Government Guidelines on Recognition of Sex and Gender, November 2015
MRS Guidance Note of Collecting Data on Sex and Gender

Jane Gregory, AMSRS Professional Standards Officer

This article also appears in the February-April 2019 edition of AMSRS publication, Research News

About Jane Gregory 2 Articles
Jane Gregory is AMSRS Professional Standards Officer. A dedicated toll free 1300 number has now been set up for AMSRS members with ethical dilemmas. The AMSRS Ethics Line is dedicated to answering members’ questions about our Code of Professional Behaviour and associated guidelines. To read more go to