Capturing sexual and gender identity

Capturing sexual and gender identity

Allison BrckaLorenz

In the context of institutional research, survey instruments measuring student experience have historically omitted demographic variables measuring sexual identity and gender identity. In an increasingly data-driven culture, these omissions have rendered LGBQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, etc.) and gender variant (non-cisgender) students invisible to university decision-makers and program planners. While it is imperative that institutions begin collecting this information, capturing demographic data on LGBQ+ and gender variant students is fraught with challenges and complexities, complicated by diverse and ever-evolving notions about sexuality and gender. The language with which these measures are constructed must effectively elicit the desired information, while navigating familiarity with terminology, social stigma, and the politics of language across LGBQ+ and gender variant communities. These measures must also contend with issues of privacy, confidentiality, relevance, campus context, and the study’s primary audience.

Recently scholars from some of the leading centers for measuring student experiences in higher education met to share their experiences with operationalizing sexual and gender identity on national surveys at the 2018 Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum. Representatives from NSSE and the Center for Postsecondary Research, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), the Student Experience at the Research University Survey (SERU), the American College Health Association (ACHA), and the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University sat on a panel to share their strategies and unique challenges in adding and asking these questions. Panel members shared their different demographic items for sexual and gender identity, described the evolution of those items, and provided examples of the successes and challenges they have had in using their individual items to collect this information from students.

NSSE research analyst Allison BrckaLorenz shared the story of these items on NSSE, providing the background, intentions, decisions, and disagreements among scholars in shaping the current survey items.

Sexual Orientation

Gender Identity

She also outlined the major challenges NSSE faced in deciding to add the questions and how to manage institution responses. Some of the challenges she mentioned included:

  • Educating some on why the questions were important to ask
  • Being limited by “survey real estate” and having to ask the minimum of what was needed
  • Finding a compromise between following best practices suggested by the LGBQ+ and gender variant scholarly communities and the best practices suggested by survey researchers and designers
  • Creating an optional question structure around “Don’t ask don’t tell” for military institutions
  • Facing the potential backlash from participating institutions that did not want the questions

The inclusion of gender and sexual identity on large-scale quantitative survey instruments provides unprecedented data on the experiences of LGBQ+ and gender variant students across higher education. Find more details about this session and strategies and challenges for these projects here.