How we research a changing gender landscape

Agree or disagree: “A person is either a man or a woman and not anything in between.”

The author(s)

  • Julia Clark Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
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Agree or disagree: “A person is either a man or a woman and not anything in between.”

Not that long ago, this question would not only have seemed preposterous to most Americans, but it would have more likely provoked complete confusion. Of course there are only two genders, right? In other parts of the world, not so much. Thailand constitutionally recognizes a third gender, Kathoey, just as India officially recognizes a third gender, Hijra, and nonbinary definitions have existed in some cultures for centuries.

While U.S. policy isn’t yet at that point, public opinion seems to be leading the way. Ipsos recently fielded this question in the U.S., and the data show that 35% of Americans – and 65% of the LGBT community – do not believe that gender is binary. In five years or 10 or another generation, how much will that shift?

For context, we look back to public opinion on a range of other issues. For example, a look back at the trajectory of public opinion on same-sex marriage finds that about the same proportion of Americans – a third – supported same-sex marriage in 1999, 16 years before the Supreme Court effectively legalized it in 2015. Now, over two-thirds support it.

This reminds us that acceptance and adjusting attitudes take time. Right now, in 2019, two in five Americans believe that gender is binary: male or female. However, the way the public perceives and understands this issue is constantly evolving. We wouldn’t have even asked the question a few short years ago.

So if you read between the lines of this issue of What the Future, you’ll see that we are preparing within the market research industry for a nonbinary future. The charge to researchers is precision in measurement, and we look to the U.S. Census for needed truths about the parameters of the populations we seek to model and measure. A challenge for this industry is, how can we accurately reflect the future of gender when our ability to do so relies on seemingly immutable federal definitions? Especially since those definitions are rooted in less inclusive times and are resistant to change so as to preserve the ability to create direct historical comparisons. Thankfully the Census is responding and recently released its estimates of same-sex couples.

Until the Census adjusts, we researchers must capture this information ourselves, to ensure we are accurately and inclusively representing the full spectrum of the population. We owe it to our clients to present an accurate picture of customers and consumers. And we owe it to citizens and survey participants to ensure they feel welcomed and see themselves reflected in our surveys and beyond.

For brands and media, the discussion about gender is evolving from representation to a more inclusive definition of expression. In Ipsos' latest What the Future report, industry executives and thought leaders weigh in about how these changes will shape business in the coming years. For this edition, Ipsos surveyed more than 19,000 people around the world – and included a boosted sample of LGBTQ individuals – to understand global attitudes about gender today with an eye towards the future. There's a handy glossary to get you up to speed on evolving terminology. Click here to access the full edition.

The author(s)

  • Julia Clark Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs

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