OPINION23 June 2021

It’s time to measure gender preference

Inclusion Opinion People Trends

The insights industry must carefully consider how it can accurately represent and measure gender in its research, says JD Deitch. 

Blackboard with chalk writing held up by teenager

As the predominant sector in the global economy that studies human opinion and behaviour, the insights industry has an obligation to offer thoughtful solutions to ensure diversity is adequately represented and accurately measured. Part of this responsibility lies in changing the way we have standardised the measurement of what we call ‘gender’, but what, in truth, is actually the respondent’s anatomical sex.

There is growing interest not just from various concerned communities and their allies, but also brands and retailers of all stripes to be able to measure gender differently. Different measurement in this case means allowing people to express being transgender (gender different from their assigned sex), non-binary (a collection of other perspectives on gender, ranging from gender neutral to multi-gender to gender-fluid) or any other preference.  

Setting aside the importance of ensuring representation, it is in our interest as researchers to allow respondents to express gender preferences, both because they are a central element to their identity and because these preferences may impact their behaviour and opinions. However, there are some clear challenges to measuring gender preference accurately and consistently.

  • Defining gender preference: We cannot hope to accurately measure gender preferences without first defining terms. Ideally the definition would be so widely accepted that it becomes a currency, yet terms are still evolving and fluctuating. The challenge here is certainly not insurmountable, but more information is needed to provide direction.
  • Methodological complexity: Market research generally infers a population’s behaviour based on a sample and then, often, constructs quotas and/or weighting systems to correct imbalances to avoid bias. Without an authoritative ‘gold standard’ source of information on gender preferences in the population, any attempt to use the data for quotas or weighting will be suspect. Additionally, we have to consider sample size due to the relatively small percentage of the population expressing a gender different from their anatomical sex will be very small in proportion. Data may be unreadable and may present challenges in terms of quota fulfilment and weighting.
  • Practical considerations: The gender profile question, along with age, is the basis for the vast majority of quota-based systems and is almost certainly hard-coded into every process and platform in the industry. Were we to replace the current standard—binary anatomical sex—with new non-binary response, we would encounter a problem equivalent in magnitude to the Year 2000 (Y2K) dilemma that plagued computer systems two decades ago. 
  • Herding cats: Our industry has a long history of being unable to find common ground for standardising basic measures and demographic coding. A few dominant players who have historically not seen eye-to-eye on these matters for various reasons must finally create a de-facto standard.  

Towards a solution
There are clearly some big obstacles in front us when it comes to accurately and consistently measuring gender preferences. I suggest a formal structure for discovery and alignment across the industry that includes three critical discovery steps: determining definitions and measurement; clearly identifying implications for client research (e.g. impact on tracking studies); and addressing execution implications for providers in the industry. I go into how to approach this process in my paper Can We Measure Gender Preference Instead of Anatomical Sex?.

Also included in the paper, I outline what I suspect we may uncover during the discovery phase, including:

  1. Definition and measurement driven by the US and UK. These are the countries where the topic of gender preference has gathered the most steam. This is not to say that gender preference would not or could not be measured in other countries, just that the US and UK will likely lead the way. 
  2. Small sample sizes. Notwithstanding the size of these markets, we will find that the share of population we might measure by allowing for transgender, non-binary and other gender preference responses will be quite small.
  3. Suppliers will profile for gender preferences, but an expanded gender preference question will not supplant binary anatomical sex. It may be frustrating for advocates and allies, but it seems likely that the combination of factors mentioned above will vitiate the drive to replace the binary demographic with a more inclusive profiling variable. 

I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the market research industry will figure out how to measure gender preference. Our interest as an industry to ensure accurate and adequate representation will be met by interest from clients who want to know more. 

I am absolutely certain that there will be people in our industry who want to participate to propel us forward. While I don’t expect a ‘big bang', I do fundamentally believe that we will at minimum see progress and plant the seeds for a more expansive, richer understanding of human behaviour. 

JD Deitch is chief operating officer at Cint