FEATURE26 October 2018

A question of identity

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For younger generations in particular, gender is increasingly seen as a spectrum rather than a binary choice. What does this mean for those trying to understand people’s behaviour? By Jane Bainbridge.


One of the first selections made by respondents in any form of market research is a gender one. Tick the box – male or female. But where only a matter of years ago these were the sole options given – and expected – today this is too restrictive. 

For gender – the way an individual identifies, rather than their biological sex – is no longer seen as a binary state, but more of a spectrum. 

The changing nature of gender identity rides on the wave of widespread shifts in society’s attitude to all areas of sex and gender and a generally more progressive and inclusive outlook. 

Harshadha Balasubramanian, cultural anthropologist at marketing strategists Kingfisher Consultancy, says: “The social and cultural norms that have upheld the female and male binary state have started to crumble. The real tipping point would arguably be movements like feminism, which asked people to take identities more seriously and give more respect to people’s individuality. 

“Once we started to acknowledge differences in people and diversity, we started to encourage people to express themselves more freely. If it is a social construction, then people have the right – and the room – to create their own identities and how they are perceived.” 

Ruairi O’Shea, analyst at strategic forecast consultancy Trajectory, adds: “This recognition of gender as non-binary has become prevalent enough – though still possibly a minority view – to be spoken about in certain areas of society as fact. 

“As much as we’re told that people are tired of experts, when expertise consistently says that gender is non-binary, it is a spectrum – and when that understanding becomes the norm among young people – it begins to gain traction.”

Opinions, attitudes and acceptance change as the demographic centre of gravity shifts and each generation has more progressive attitudes than the one before. So, while opinions don’t necessarily change within generational groups, beliefs are phased out as older groups die. 

Changing attitudes

“The attitudes of an individual probably aren’t going to change drastically from age 70 to 80, but the cohort replacing this cohort has the most progressive attitude toward gender and sex that we’ve ever seen,” adds O’Shea. “There’s never been a ‘normal’ with regards to sex being binary, there’s been a scientific and societal misinterpretation that is now being unpacked and better understood.”

But, just as feminism has raised the hackles of some, and others refuse to embrace the concept of same-sex relationships, non-binary gender identity is not without its opponents. As with any recalibration of societal norms, there are those debating gender identity – even among the progressives. Within the feminist movement, a sub-group of ‘Terfs’ – trans-exclusionary radical feminists – argue that trans women aren’t real women. 

Emily Porter-Salmon, associate director at cultural insight agency Sign Salad, explains: “There are extents to which traditional second-wave feminism is actually quite antagonistic towards more early 21st century dialogue around gender, and I think the Gen Z perspective on gender is much less essentialist than the more traditional feminist view. 

“They are both important to look at, but there’s a big generational shift in the feminist discourse from the 1970s into the late 20th century and where Gen Z is, because there’s a link for second/third-wave feminism in the 1970s to sex and a physical form of a body. Gender is not the same as sex; for Gen Z and for millennials, to a greater or lesser extent, it’s about performative behaviour, and how you choose to present – not about a body being a genotype that expresses as a particular shape.”

So, how do market researchers acclimatise to the changing perspectives on gender and ensure they are interviewing and questioning appropriately? 

The Market Research Society (MRS) issued a Guidance Note on Collecting Data on Sex and Gender, and in it reiterates the MRS Code of Conduct, which states it is important ‘to allow participants to express their views in the way that they prefer’. Under Rule 33c: “Members must take reasonable steps to ensure participants are able to give information in a way that reflects the view they want to express.

“In particular, the categories provided for completion must facilitate and recognise the fluidity of gender identity, by offering an additional option, such as free-field ‘other’.


Gender options

But for many, including ‘other’ as an option after ‘male’ and ‘female’ is not enough. In 2014, Facebook gave its UK users 71 different gender options after successfully introducing it in the US. 

Others have gone for less prescribed categories. For example, the Government Digital Service offers ‘Male’, ‘Female’, ‘Unspecified’ as its three box options while LGBTQ+ campaigning group Stonewall offers: ‘Female’; ‘Male’; ‘Prefer not to say’; ‘Prefer to self describe as’... with the latter completed by the respondent in their own words. 

Ultimately, any form of market research should aim to ensure participants feel included, as then, hopefully, they will be more honest and open in the way they respond. 

If people don’t feel valued from the very start of a survey or questionnaire, then how can that research garner valuable or effective data? This is as vital for brands as it is for those involved in social policy or charity research. 

The exact numbers actively identifying outside of the binary choices are not known – the Office for National Statistics doesn’t currently collect stats on gender beyond male and female, although it is currently testing how to update this. But one US study by The Williams Institute in 2016 suggested that 0.6% of US adults identified as transgender, with some states considerably higher. 

J Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer, brand & marketing at Kantar Consulting, argues that market researchers must update their methods to reflect both fixed and fluid gender identity. “This is easily done, but it does require a different battery of questions and metrics.”

He points out that we can only see what we measure – if answers are constrained by categories, then to some degree the insight gained will be artificial or incomplete. 

Some brands appear to be starting to understand the shifting nature of gender. A select few companies are mentioned repeatedly – John Lewis for its gender-neutral children’s clothing and Coca-Cola for its Super Bowl ad, which used gender neutral pronouns in a subtle way that remained in keeping with its familiar optimistic and upbeat brand message.

“When market researchers have the tools, or start connecting the tools, to gain meaningful data about gender and its fluidity, we’ll be able to feed those insights back to brands and hopefully give them the means to make those changes,” says Balasubramanian. “We, as researchers, have a responsibility to be true to the data that we gather and, even if it is a minority, take that back to the client, so they can make informed decisions.”

This raises broader questions about what data needs to be collected in the first place. 

Inclusion and research

“Often, the business need for data and for researchers to supply it is slightly incongruous with doing this research in an inclusive way,” says O’Shea. 

“If you want to carry out a study with a large number of participants and offer the opportunity for greater specificity in how they identify themselves, you could theoretically not have large enough participant groups – when making considerations for gender – to create statistically significant results, or to use the results practically. But should people’s gender identity or expression be subservient to the practice of research? It’s a question that the industry needs to answer, and possibly accept an answer it doesn’t like.”

In addition, it may not just be how people identify themselves in terms of gender that’s relevant, but who they identify with. In a more gender-fluid society, the predetermined silos of boys’ toys and girls’ stuff may be breaking down.

Take, for instance, a makeup brand that wanted to reach an 18- to 25-year-old female demographic. Porter-Salmon cites a recent Maybelline example.

“Manny Mua is the first man to star in a Maybelline campaign – he’s a man, he identifies as male, but he does these amazing full faces of makeup – females see his influence as equal to a genetic female. Maybelline is saying this is a community of interest, this is about people who love makeup.

“So, for market research moving forward – and thinking about how it has depended on very clear definitions of a consumer, and demarcations by income, social class or ethnicity – those boundaries are being broken down. It’s not about a label that’s applied from the outside to an individual, but about how the individual chooses to present and self-identify.”

Gender identity is going through a massive cultural shift, and those who haven’t grown up with it must now navigate the new lexicon in a similar fashion to previous generations with ethnicity or same-sex relationships. 

“If you think about the blunt instrument that race was even 10 years ago, and where we are now, that’s where gender is headed,” adds Porter-Salmon. 

Smith is optimistic that market researchers and brands will get there. “Marketers will figure this out. They are in the business of finding ways to connect with people, so deliberately ignoring something like identity is simply not how marketers operate.”

This article was first published in Issue 23 of Impact (October 2018 ).