The Gender Question

The Gender Question in Global Research:
What it means to be ethical

The Gender Question in Global Research

Author: Ruth Partington

I didn’t expect to come away from the 2019 ITI conference for translators thinking about gender. It was, in fact, one of the most pressing translation topics being studied by the Research Network thinktank, due to the complexity of the ethical challenges faced by translators around the world.

It’s when I realised – we really need to keep talking about gender in global market research.

Thanks to years of activism, Western politics now states that we must allow for non-binary gender identity. Fortunately, since the first Pride march in 1970, the gender conversation has come a long way: from Pride pioneers fearing job security or much worse, to today, where global brands increase their popularity through supporting the powerful movement of inclusivity.

Be true gender in global research

So, we know that our global clients are actively aligning their brands to non-binary gender identification. It begs the question… in global research, why are we still doing this:-

Are you:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Other

 A threat to quality?

The answer is simple: benchmarking.

Equality of questions across all markets forms the backbone of strong, actionable insight. To achieve this, we often attempt a compromise between cultures and languages where it would be offensive not to offer minimally a non-binary option (such as Western and South-East Asian markets), and those where it may be considered offensive or even illegal to do so (for example, in some Middle-Eastern or Russian markets).

However, in trying to make gender fit around traditional benchmarking, we run the risk of isolating or offending all participants. This could easily hinder the accuracy of your insights and even threaten how ethical your research is perceived to be in that market.

More importantly, market research is about giving voice. How can we claim to be the voice of the people - to truly understand their opinions and behaviours and communicate this accurately to global clients - if we’re providing them with a culturally inaccurate means of expressing who they are?


Steps to more ethical research

The gender question is undoubtedly an ethical one, and even a question of legality in certain markets. It is crucial to take the right approach so as not to derail your research or your reputation.

Step 1 – Determine if you need to ask the question at all…
The answer, of course, depends on the research. We can make the distinction between asking gender for medical purposes (physiological), and segmenting based on notions of consumer behaviour (identity). Frankly put: is it important to know whether your participants have male and/or female body parts, or do you need to know about participant behaviour based on gender identity? If the question is around identity, will the results of asking a gender question provide mission-critical data?

Step 2 – Explore new processes for benchmarking
The need for all gender response options to generate actionable insight that holds true across all markets is based on the out-dated assumption that all markets classify gender in the same way. In reality, the disparities seem to be growing as the world’s moralities polarise to extremes. Consider taking a different approach to global benchmarking, where the gender question can be split into a partially global benchmark (e.g. Male/Female/Intersex [if accepted in that market]), and non-binary options for market-specific benchmarking.

Step 3 – Make sure you’re asking the question in a culturally-inclusive and sensitive way
It is just as important to respect markets that view gender as binary as it is to be inclusive for those that allow freer expression. For this reason, GoogleTranslateTM just won’t cut it. Your translations need to be done by in-country linguists who can provide input on the moral and legal aspects of the question, and ideally pulled together by a team with global knowledge of how the cross-market differences could impact benchmarking capabilities.


Moving forwards

With the current political and social upheaval, one thing is clear: the ethics around gender will only become more powerful. It’s why the Insight Industry needs much greater clarity on how to approach it in research.

Indeed, the MRS quotes in their 2018 Policy and Standards Review:  ‘One potential aspect of vulnerability is sex and gender identity: it is no longer sufficient to ask whether people we research are male or female.’  The MRS is also one of the few associations around the world that has any guidance on gender identity and how that is represented (Draft Code of Conduct 2019 – Special Category Data: ‘Special category data means the processing reveals racial or ethnic origin… or data concerning a natural person's sex life or sexual orientation..)

Differentiating between physiological gender and gender identity could be a good starting point. There may also be potential to move identity-based gender questions away from traditionally closed selection and towards an OE or partially-OE question, with benchmarking consequently adapted in innovate ways to be both global and market-specific where necessary.

If we’re to be genuinely inclusive and allow freedom of voice, we should honour that commitment to participants and allow them to express themselves freely in their response to gender identity.

At the very least, we should all be asking: what purpose does the gender question serve in my research?

Ruth Partington

Ruth Partington

Ruth Partington

Ruth (MMRS) has nearly 25 years’ of expertise bringing the Insight Industry closer to its global research participants, through excellent quality language services and consultancy. Alongside innovating for global insight, Ruth brings transformation vision to the translation industry in her role as Chair of the national Association of Translation Companies. True to being a passionate businessowner, specialist communicator and motorbike enthusiast, she’ll never shy away from a discussion on ‘changing the game’!


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