Dear Feminist Scientists: How do you speak truth to gender binaries on questionnaires?

As part of our ongoing “Dear feminist scientists and science-y feminists” series, we have a new question to answer!

Ashley Symons writes

My department’s general consent forms still ask participants’ ‘gender’ and then provide a binary male/female option. Is it being nit-picky that this bothers me? If you were a Masters student (and therefore had absolutely no authority), what would you do in this case?

So, the first thing I’d do is recommend is our “Can a Questionnaire be Feminist” post. But this questioner already gets some of those points, namely that offering only a binary option doesn’t map onto the world, which includes people of non-binary genders/sexes. I’d also reiterate that ‘male/female’ isn’t recommended in guidelines for human research because it describes aspects of people and not whole people – and I would add that it suggests a focus on biological (sex) factors over identity or social ones (gender or gender/sex). Moreover, other scholars have pointed out that putting the ‘male’ before ‘female’ puts, um, men first. So why not mix it up? But back to the question! Which has a few parts

  1. Is it being nitpicky to be bothered by a department structuring their questionnaires to include a male/female binary?
  2. How might this student address this structure given that their position is structured to have low/no-authority?

Those are some good questions. What does the community think? Feminist scientists? Science-y feminists? If you’re junior, what might you do? If you’re in a more-power position, what might you advise? What might work with you?



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1 Response

  1. Zena Sharman says:

    Thanks for asking a great (and important) question, Ashley! I agree with Sari’s comments, and would also point you to Dr. Greta Bauer’s chapter on the inclusion of trans* people in health surveys ( It’s not nitpicky to be bothered by this binary – it’s inclusive, and it’s good science (in the sense that we always need to think critically about what we’re asking, why we’re asking for it, and how we’re asking for it). As for your position in the departmental hierarchy, I’d say this is somewhat dependent on the culture of your department. What about finding more senior allies to work with you on this? Is there one project or questionnaire where you can use this as a starting point? What about making binaries in questionnaire design the subject of a research or review paper?

    Good luck, and thanks for raising this issue!

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