How can we collect gender data in an inclusive way?

As a society, we are starting to recognise that the way we talk about gender impacts the lives of people who don’t identify as male or female, and creating a shared language is a priority. For most businesses, this will have a flow-on effect for how we request and record gender data. So, I want to talk about a big topic – how can we ask about and record gender data in an inclusive way?

The answer on this isn’t clear, and I am certainly not trying to position myself as an authority on gender identity, but I think it is an important discussion for businesses and individuals alike. So here I want to pose some questions and share a few thoughts to start the discussion amongst the recruitment and HR communities.

What impact are we having if we don’t collect information in an inclusive way?

If you identify as male or female, answering a gender question is probably something you don’t put too much thought into. If you identify otherwise however, it can be a minefield that can cause significant angst and increased feelings of alienation. If a question has that power, then it’s certainly worth thinking about.

It also has a flow-on effect to your workplace. We already know that diversity has many benefits for a workplace, and businesses have long looked to their recruitment data to determine how they are tracking on this important KPI. Gender has been a key indicator for some time, but if you are just collecting traditional gender options you are missing an important piece of the puzzle.

Understanding gender diversity beyond traditional genders can help you better understand your workplace, who you are attracting with your recruitment efforts, and how to better align your HR and recruitment policies.

It’s also a chance for you to show what your organisation stands for. Today’s job seekers tend to seek out employers with values that align with their own – so it’s also an important part of your employer value proposition.

So, how can we ask the question?

I don’t profess to have all (or any of) the answers here, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts. I very much welcome discussion (and challenge!) on any of these points because I think by discussing it as a community, we can find the right path forward.

If you don’t need to know, don’t ask

Sounds simple, but before you add a gender question, ask yourself whether it is necessary. Of course, there are good reasons — identification and legal purposes for example, or even to meet the diversity KPIs mentioned above — but if the information won’t be used in this way, consider leaving it out altogether.

Be clear on what and why

Sometimes, gender information is critical for legal or other reasons, so if you need to ask for the person’s gender as per their identity documents, be clear that this is what you need and explain why you need it.

Provide a reasonable number of options and allow the client to provide their gender

It would be challenging to address the endless number of possibilities for personal identity on a form. It would make even simple forms difficult to complete and the data would be hard to manage but providing a reasonable number of options that cover as wide a base as possible is important.

Because we can’t provide all options, giving candidates an option to provide their gender can help. Word choice here is important. I think ‘other’ can be further alienating, so even something like “provide my gender” can soften the ask. As mentioned above, if you don’t need it, consider not asking. But if you go ahead, have a ‘decline to answer’ option, rather than ‘not applicable’ which may come across as dismissive.

Ask about pronouns

You might have started to notice people in your social networks (like LinkedIn) indicating their preferred pronouns (they/them, she/her, he/him). This can be a good way to understand how someone would like to be referred to and ensure you are not further isolating your audience.

Be clear on privacy

As mentioned earlier, this can be a sensitive topic for many in the community, so make sure you are keeping it private. Where you will need to share or use the information further, be upfront about this on the form.

I want to be really clear again that these are just my inexpert thoughts to start a conversation, so please get in touch, comment or start the discussion in your own network – it’s an important one for us all.