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Inclusive Demographics Questions for Surveys

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Demographic questions can provide valuable context when you go to analyze your survey data. Common demographic questions include gender, race and ethnicity, education level, income, and zip code.

Race and Ethnicity

Demographic questions should be asked in a way that is as inclusive as possible. Take the question of race, for example. The 2020 U.S. Census asked two items about race and ethnicity. First, people were asked to select one of the following race options: White, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or Some other race or origin. Next, people were asked to indicate whether or not they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. The Census Bureau considered combining these questions into a single item, though this proposal was not adopted for the 2020 Census.

For most audience research surveys, combining the two questions into one is an inclusive option that will still allow your organization to compare your audience data to publicly available census data within your community. The SMU DataArts demographics survey includes two columns of options that a respondent may select any number of. These columns represent identity components of both race and ethnicity (including regional origin). The label Person of Middle Eastern or North African descent (MENA) was added to assist individuals from those geographic regions to accurately report their Middle Eastern/North African identities. MENA has not yet been adopted by the U.S. census. To compare demographics data for those identifying as MENA/Middle Eastern to the U.S. census, MENA and Middle Eastern respondents are categorized in the “White” category. However, research has shown that including a MENA racial category in demographics surveys allows for a more accurate picture of respondents.

The SMU DataArts demographics survey asks further details in the Race/Ethnicity section for those who selected a racial category (righthand column) or identified as Indigenous. These detailed breakouts ask about regions of ancestry or tribal affiliations and are not reported in the individual report but are instead used at the community level for analysis.

Check all that apply:
[ ] Asian
[ ] Black
[ ] Hispanic/Latino/a/x
[ ] Indigenous*
[ ] Middle Eastern
[ ] White
[ ] Person of African descent (Non-MENA)
[ ] Person of Asian descent (Non-MENA)
[ ] Person of European descent (Non-MENA)
[ ] Person of Mexican, South American, Central American, or Caribbean descent
[ ] Person of Middle Eastern or North African descent (MENA)**
( ) My ethnic identity is not listed here
( ) I decline to state

If you are asking respondents about their gender, asking them to select Male or Female excludes respondents who do not identify as Male or Female. There are other options recommended by experts and advocates that provide more inclusive options.
The Human Rights Coalition (HRC), in this article about collecting demographic data in the workplace, recommends following a 2-part question to allow respondents to select or provide a gender followed by their transgender status. HRC defines “transgender” as:
an umbrella term that refers to people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Other identities considered to fall under this umbrella can include non-binary, gender fluid, and genderqueer – as well as many more.
What is your current gender identity? (Check all that apply)
[ ] Male
[ ] Female
[ ] Genderqueer/gender non-conforming
[ ] Different identity (please state): _________
[ ] I decline to state
Do you identify as transgender?
( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) I decline to state
Sexual Orientation
Questions regarding sexual orientation are distinct and separate from Gender Identity. Response choices need to be inclusive and capture the scope of orientations including heterosexual or straight, gay or lesbian, bisexual, asexual, and an option to describe an additional sexual orientation.
Do you consider yourself to be:
( ) Heterosexual or straight
( ) Gay or lesbian
( ) Bisexual
( ) Asexual                              
( ) My sexual orientation is not listed here
( ) I decline to state
Do you describe your sexual orientation or identity in any other way? If yes, please describe:

Consider how you will use the data

Depending on the level of confidentiality you can offer, certain demographic questions may be perceived as intrusive, and may cause people to skip questions or stop filling out your survey altogether. Every piece of data you collect in your survey should fulfill a specific purpose, but this is especially true for demographic data. Be sure that you understand why you are collecting different types of demographic data and how you plan to use them.
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