Problems measuring “other” in gender identity questions, and a possible solution

When asking questions about gender identity in surveys in Switzerland, I often faced the problem that a tiny fraction of respondents did not answer the question seriously. Normally, we can live with this, but it’s a real hindrance when trying to capture relatively small sections of the population.

Here’s a typical case from Switzerland in 2015:

Male (blue), female (red), other (green)

We offered “female”, “male”, and “other” as response categories with the option to specify which “other” identity applies. If we go by estimates elsewhere, we should expect between 0.1% and 2% of the respondents picking “other”. At first sight, we seem to be at the lower end, but there’s likely serious under-reporting because more than half of these “other” responses are not referring to other gender identities. We get responses like “cat”, or “there are only two genders” — definitely not on the useful side of open questions (beyond noting that some people are probably frustrated about the fact that we do talk about non-binary identities, I guess).

Offering more choices for gender identity seems to discourage nonsense and protest answers, leaving us with a better measure of non-binary gender identity

I’ve had this in several surveys, but recently we tried something else: we offered more choice! Yes, rather than “female”, “male”, and “other” we spelled out a few of the “other” category: “female”, “male”, “non-binary”, “transgender female”, “transgender male”, “other”. From a conventional survey design point of view, this was bordering the ridiculous because we only expected some 500 respondents in this survey, which would yield between 1 and 10 respondents in those categories combined (going by existing estimates). We’re still at the lower end of this range, but we had none of these nonsense and protest answers.

Given that we’ve run an almost identical survey just months earlier with the three category format (“female”, “male”, “other”) and had more than half of the “other” answers that did not refer to gender identity, we might be onto a solution…

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