The world’s understanding of gender is evolving beyond the binary, creating a promising opportunity for program implementors, survey researchers and data collectors to make their work more inclusive and representative.

This is the concept behind a new policy brief from RTI Press, in which Rajeev Colaço of RTI and Stephanie Watson-Grant of John Snow International explore the concept of gender-disaggregated data in international development programs, surveys and data collection. They offer concrete steps that program implementors, data collectors and researchers can take to make surveys more gender-inclusive, strengthening both data quality and the future impact of research.

We sat down with Dr. Colaço and Dr. Watson-Grant to discuss the brief, A Global Call to Action for Gender-Inclusive Data Collection and Use.

You point out that sex-disaggregated data have been valuable in the international development and survey research communities, and there is a now a growing emphasis on the need for comprehensive and inclusive gender-disaggregated data. Please discuss the importance of this trend, and how gender disaggregation reflects an evolution in more inclusive data collection.

Dr. Watson-Grant: In data collection and survey research, sex-disaggregated data refers to any data that has been broken down and analyzed by sex. For the past few decades, analyzing data in this way has meant separating and comparing responses from cisgender men and cisgender women – persons whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with the birth sex assigned to them.

However, the female-male sex-disaggregated binary fails to capture the gender identity of a number of people. One way that survey research can keep up with our evolving understanding of gender is to adopt more comprehensive and inclusive gender disaggregation. This means asking survey respondents for information on their gender identity in a multinomial, rather than binary way. Some gender categories researchers can collect, in addition to cisgender male and cisgender female, include

  • Transgender female/trans female/male-to-female
  • Transgender male/trans male/female-to-male
  • Nonbinary/genderqueer/gender nonconforming
  • Other (please specify)

Several existing studies provide examples of gender disaggregation in action. We cite some of these in our brief, including surveys related to behavioral health and HIV prevention, along with the census in certain countries. Offering participants the chance to choose genders other than the usual female/male options means that these surveys account for marginalized populations who are vulnerable and could be excluded from programs. It fills important gaps in the knowledge base.

How do you hope researchers and program implementors will use your policy brief in their work?

Dr. Colaço: Our policy brief is a clear call to action. We believe that inclusive gender disaggregation should become a standard practice in international development and survey research, and we provide examples to help our fellow program implementors and researchers institute this practice.

We also highlight the importance of diversity, including gender diversity, among data collectors themselves. People are more comfortable responding to interviewers they relate to, especially when discussing sensitive health topics. Employing transgender and gender-nonconforming people in survey research is a key part of the solution. Further, merely including gender disaggregation options in surveys is unlikely to automatically result in those data being accurately captured; therefore, we highlight the importance of adequate gender training, sensitization and resources for both data collectors and respondents.

Why is gender disaggregation of data relevant to international development work?

Dr. Watson-Grant: When we implement international development programs, we strive to ensure that our programs do not omit marginalized and disadvantaged people; when we do not reach all populations, we cannot achieve the desired goals and outcomes of our programs. Stigma, discrimination and marginalization of groups that include transgender and gender nonconforming people are well documented in global settings; yet historically, we have not actively sought to collect comprehensive and inclusive gender-disaggregated data from the populations that our programs serve. Nor have national data or information systems been configured to be gender inclusive. A first step toward ensuring that our programs reach all people, including historically marginalized transgender and gender nonconforming people, is to acknowledge their existence and collect data from them.   

How has the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of gender disaggregation?

Dr. Colaço: Marginalized populations, including transgender and gender-nonconforming people, are often excluded from adequate testing, care and treatment, and vaccinations. In a pandemic, this stigma makes marginalized people – as well as the overall population – more susceptible to higher morbidity and mortality. Inclusive and comprehensive gender disaggregation leads to better data reflective of transgender, gender nonconforming and all people, which promotes more accurate understanding, which reduces stigma. This could mean better outcomes for transgender and gender-nonconforming people – and for the overall population – in the face of the next pandemic or other health threat.