Every year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) send a series of surveys to students and researchers around the country. The surveys are used to monitor changing demographics and track levels of financial support for scientific research, and filling them out is required for anyone who receives NSF funding. There are limited gender options in these surveys: male, female and, on some surveys, “do not wish to disclose.”
As scientists who exist outside the gender binary, many of us do wish to disclose our gender, but are unable to do so because these terms do not reflect our identities. Nonbinary scientists and other scientists outside the gender binary experience gender beyond the typical man-and-woman dichotomy, and often identify as transgender. Being unable to accurately report our gender precludes accurate data collection for these organizations, and further marginalizes nonbinary scientists. Nonbinary identities are increasingly common; most nonbinary people are under the age of 29, and members of Gen Z are more than twice as likely to identify as nonbinary, genderfluid or nonconforming than older generations. A recent study in Pittsburgh even found that nearly one in 10 young people self-identified as gender diverse. It is time for the NSF and the NCSES to update their policies and language to better quantify and support this growing transgender and gender diverse population.
The lack of information on transgender and gender diverse scientists is both a symptom and cause of exclusion from science at large. By not collecting accurate gender data, the NSF limits our ability to understand and quantify representation, funding disparities and retention, and ultimately stops us from assessing and addressing any gaps. The STEM Inclusion Study found that LGBTQ+ scientists have fewer resources and career opportunities, experience more harassment and exclusion at work and are more likely to consider leaving their current job positions than their heterosexual, cisgender peers. Further, we know from our involvement in communities like the International Society of Nonbinary Scientists that nonbinary researchers face barriers in gender segregated environments like dorms, conference accommodations and field work. Accurate data from annual NSF surveys will allow us to better understand and advocate for our transgender and gender diverse scientific community.
Determining which multiple-choice gender options to include is a common barrier to updating demographics surveys. We recommend a simple solution: change gender questions to a write-in field and allow all people to accurately describe themselves. Asking “What is your gender?” is feasible at scale, generates accurate results and accommodates language changes over time. We recommend an expanded list of gender options when an open-ended question is unfeasible, such as “agender,” “gender variant,” “two-spirit,” “nonbinary” and “genderqueer” in addition to “man” and “woman.” There should also be an option to specify a chosen name, and that name should be used in all communications. Respecting chosen names, pronouns and gender identity is critical for acceptance and dignity.
As scientists and scientific institutions, we must promote collection of accurate data. Changing methods based on new information is a cornerstone of good science. The NSF is collecting inaccurate data: nonbinary people, who are neither men nor women, must either report their gender falsely or not disclose it. An NSF spokesperson confirmed last year that the agency is considering splitting the question into two parts: “current gender identity” and “assigned sex at birth.” Despite its popularity, using biological sex as a proxy for gendered experience is unscientific, outdated and often motivated by a desire to exclude. Much of the evidence in favor of a two-step question comes from trans health research, whose findings may not apply outside of medical contexts. One often-cited study about intake forms in a sexual health clinic showed that a two-step question led to 4.8 times more trans people being identified, but it was the addition of a “Nonbinary/Genderqueer" gender option that accounted for over half of the increase.
Context is also critical here: a person who is willing to tell their doctor about their birth assignment may feel differently about the same question on a federal census. Transgender people are often uncomfortable being asked their assigned sex at birth, and nonbinary scientists we know often prefer not to disclose it. Further, while “transgender” is not a stable or truly measurable category, this information can be collected directly and respectfully by asking the optional question “Do you identify as transgender?” Relying on assigned sex at birth to back-calculate who is and isn’t a gender minority just creates another artificial binary and flattens the experiences of scientists in our community.
On May 10, we sent an open letter to officials at the NSF and the NCSES, asking them to improve how they collect gender data on official forms and surveys. Our letter to the NSF and NCSES was signed by 413 transgender and gender diverse scientists and 2,280 cisgender scientists, most of whom are also NSF-funded. Our proposed changes align with the goals of the NSF’s 2018–2022 Strategic Plan, where the agency committed to “attract, retain, and empower a talented and diverse workforce.” Through these changes, NSF and NCSES can respectfully and accurately quantify gender diversity.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.