Let’s Talk: Demographic Questions


The Situation:

We all know we need to learn more about our employees, buyers, and event attendees – but it’s easy to freeze or get tripped up when figuring out what and how to ask for their demographic information! It can feel awkward and isolating and often results in the omission of important questions for fear of getting it wrong. We’ve certainly felt it. But asking demographic questions, and asking them in an inclusive and welcoming manner, is essential to understanding your audience. Say goodbye to daunting discomfort, we’ll show you how to get your employee surveys, customer feedback loops, and event registration data firing on all cylinders.

We partner with an initiative called Change the Stage which aims to develop diversity benchmarks for the events industry to prompt new faces on stages and inclusive environments for both speakers and attendees. Recently, we were tasked with developing a set of demographic questions that Change the Stage can share with event planners and registration platforms. We scoured the internet and found that despite there being a bunch of different suggestions about how to ask certain demographic questions, the suggestions differed from source to source. Upon conducting our own secondary research to understand the broader conversations about why this is happening, we found that there really isn’t much conversation happening… 

So we’re here to start that conversation and share with you some tips we’ve learned upon developing our demographic section best practices. And great news! These demographic takeaways extend to internal employee research and people already including demographic questions in their research. 

What We Learned Along the Way:

One Size Will Never Fit All

Ask yourself: what do we really need to know? 

Demographic questions play a crucial role in understanding the results of your research, the implications of your company initiatives, and more broadly, who your survey is reaching. They also impact the experience your respondent has while answering your questions. For the benefit of your results and your participants’ experience, it’s crucial to consider what you are actually asking about them, and why you need this information. 

If there is no strategic incentive that backs a demographic question, then there is no reason to include it. 

What are you actually trying to understand? Is knowing someone’s gender, age, and/or race really going to help contribute to that understanding?

Typically, we ask identity questions for two reasons: one is that we are trying to understand the relationship between identity traits and another variable, or we are aiming to better understand the demographics of our audience or sample. Consequently, weak demographic questions can completely put your results and analysis at risk. 

If you are already going through the process of ensuring each demographic question is there for a reason (which, after reading this, you should be) then let your respondents know your reasoning. Asking about someone’s identity can be a personal and sensitive process and so we want to ensure that our intentions are clear and the data collection space we are creating is as welcoming as possible. 

Why wouldn’t you want your participants to know where their information is going or what their answers are contributing to? The only exception to this is when there are methodological constraints that would hinder your results by being explicit. Not sure what this means? Then you probably don’t have them! Feel free to check in with us, though, if you are unsure.


Continue the Conversation

You may not know best, and that’s ok! Create a space for your respondents to tell you that. 

There’s a reason we began researching the most inclusive way to phrase and position our demographic questions- asking people about themselves can be tricky and personal. The last thing we want is for a survey participant to leave feeling uncomfortable or offended. Despite the countless blackholes our team went down, the information we had access to was limited.

You are only as good as what you know, and there is always room for improvement- so open the door to that communication! 

At the end of our demographics section we added an open-ended question saying: ‘Is there any feedback you would like to provide to make our demographics section more inclusive?’


The Power of Options 

This simple backend switch can completely alter your respondents’ experience! 

If you are listing off different identities for your respondents to select (as opposed to making every question open-ended), simply check the box that enables participants to select any option that applies to them. This takes you two seconds (if even) and could completely alter the experience someone has while responding to your questions. Identities are complex and sometimes go beyond any single category you’ve divided your options into. That’s normal and should be celebrated! 

This simple switch can enable people to most accurately and holistically represent their identity. 

Going back to our first point, demographic questions are essential because they clearly show who is taking your survey. Thus, we are doing ourselves and our participants a disservice when we prevent them from clearly telling us who they are! If people only select one option, that’s fine, but this will ultimately clarify your findings and ensure you’re creating the most inclusive response experience possible. 

As important as multiselect is for your survey, this switch assumes people actually want to answer all of your questions. Sometimes, participants don’t want to disclose, and that has to be fine too! Part of making our data collection space welcoming is letting people know that their identity disclosure is completely optional. Adding a ‘prefer not to disclose’ option to each of your questions ensures that people can easily opt out of any question they don’t want to answer. It’s important to empower your participants to disclose whatever they are comfortable sharing. Remember that any encounter people have with your company is a chance for you to leave an impression- we want that to be one of genuine inclusion and support. 


Your Wording Matters 

When we were doing our secondary research, one source suggested adding the word ‘currently’ to questions about gender identity. This simple one word is incredibly consequential in that asking someone ‘How do you currently describe your gender identity?’ acknowledges the fluidity of one’s gender identity: your gender right now may not accurately represent your gender identity in the future. We want to take this tip one step further and suggest that this also be applied to other identities susceptible to change like Sexual Identity or Sexual Orientation. 

Additionally, consider the scope of respondents and how perceptions change for certain phrasing based on location. Words matter within your own country but they also matter when you are surveying at a global level. In some places, for example, ethnic or racial questions can be seen as offensive or even illegal to ask. 

It’s crucial to understand the context in which you are surveying and ensure that both your options and analysis of the results align with the perception of your audience. 


Wrapping it Up

We want to empower you to start asking essential questions, and doing it in a manner that includes all. This piece is intended to start a much needed conversation. That means we want to hear from you! Let us know your thoughts, questions, or concerns regarding demographic data. Did we miss something? Is there information that would be helpful for us to keep in mind moving forward? Let’s talk. 


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