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GVSU professor finds social surveys no longer accurately measure sex and gender in US

New research released by professors from Grand Valley State University and Stanford University reveals most social surveys in the U.S. are not measuring what surveyors think is being measured in regard to sex and gender.

“The way that surveys have historically measured sex and gender and how they still continue to do so does not align with current gender theory or lived experiences,” said Laurel Westbrook, associate professor of sociology at Grand Valley and co-author of the study. “While gender theorists see sex and gender as separate concepts, surveys conflate them. Moreover, surveys only count two categories, male and female, and do not allow respondents to change sex or gender over time.”

The study explains that traditional understandings of sex and gender found in social surveys, such as only allowing people to check one box when asked “male” or “female,” do not reflect either academic theories about the difference between sex and gender, nor how a growing number of people prefer to identify.

Westbrook, along with Aliya Saperstein, professor of sociology at Stanford, analyzed four of the largest and longest-running social surveys in the U.S. for their study. They found that the surveys not only used answer options that were binary and static, but also combined sex and gender into one category. The study shows that these practices have changed very little over the 60 years of surveys examined by Westbrook and Saperstein.

“Treatment of sex and gender in surveys is very different from that of race and ethnicity, where they allow for more than two answer options and often include an ‘other’ category,” Saperstein said. “By not including an ‘other’ category for sex or gender, surveys imply that ‘male’ and ‘female’ cover all possible ways of being. Binary understandings of gender exist throughout these surveys. This has a normative effect, teaching respondents that there are only two sexes and only two genders.”

The study outlines that there are in fact more than two sexes and more than two genders so, as a result, how people identify in terms of gender may differ from how others perceive and classify them. Gender identities and classifications can also change over the course of a person’s life, Westbrook said.

Westbrook and Saperstein said sex and gender categories in social surveys and official statistics do not align with the above understanding. For example, they found that answer options to questions about a person’s sex or gender were limited to “male” or “female” only. They noted the practice stands in contrast to other demographic questions that allow for more diversity.

The surveys also treat sex and gender as synonymous, often using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably or using the sex terms “female” and “male” to measure gender, rather than gender terms such as “man” or “woman,” “cisgender” or “transgender.”

To change these stagnant practices, Westbrook and Saperstein suggest social surveys must:

  • Consistently distinguish between sex and gender;
  • Rethink binary categories;
  • Incorporate self-identified gender and acknowledge it can change over time;
  • Measure gender as a spectrum of masculinity and femininity; and
  • Ask two separate questions in which respondents indicate their sex at birth, followed by the gender they currently present as or identify with.