The work of a new government working group focusing on demographic data has important implications for the study of inequality. The Federal Interagency Working Group on Improving Measurement of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Federal Surveys (SOGI IWG) has been established to address the profound neglect of data-collection that distinguishes LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) individuals within broader sample sets.
The rare studies that have been conducted do find that LGBT Americans are more likely to be made poorer by virtue of informal victimization (e.g. bullying or harassment) and legalized discrimination (e.g. the prohibition of benefit sharing among same-sex partners and the absence of employment protections). Research also shows that LGBT people of color are more severely affected by social inequality than are their white counterparts. Transgender people have been shown to experience higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness — a finding exacerbated by race, with transgender people of color experiencing even higher rates of unemployment and denial of medical care than white transgender individuals do.
Anecdotal experience suggests that economists who work on micro-level inequality are inclined to explain their silence on LGBT populations by referencing the unavailable, inaccurate, and inconsistent data on SOGI. In turn, the inadequate collection and analysis of data hides the inequalities cited above from researchers and policymakers, distorting the results that become the basis on which public and private services are allocated, thereby aggravating disparities.
The SOGI IWG was established to address this failure, and explained its rationale in the introduction to its August 2016 working paper:
“At a time when sexual and gender minority (SGM)1 populations are becoming more visible in social and political life, there remains a lack of data on the characteristics and well-being of these groups. In order to understand the diverse needs of SGM populations, more representative and better quality data need to be collected. The U.S. Federal Government is taking several steps to coordinate data collection efforts
across its many Departments. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) convened the Federal Interagency Working Group on Measuring Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) to begin addressing the dearth of data for these populations and the issues surrounding methodological issues in collecting such data.”
The methodological challenge is illustrated by the following examples: The 2007 BJS Census of Law Enforcement Gang Units has officers report the total female and male officers assigned to their unit by listing each officers’ “gender and employment status”. The 2016 U.S. Census asks each respondent to mark their own sex, and the sex of each member of their household, as either male or female. The Federal Reserve Board Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) does not ask the respondent for gender and sex; instead, interviewers are instructed to infer the respondent’s sex as either male or female. Surveyors then ask respondents to list the sex of all other members of the household.
For the uninitiated, the inconsistencies in these examples may not be obvious. But there are at least three vitally important errors:
The first flaw is that the terms gender and sex are used interchangeably, whereas each denotes a distinct concept.* The American Psychological Association defines gender as “…the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex…” while sex refers to “a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female or intersex. There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia.” This distinction demonstrates that the BJS survey of police officers is asking a different question to the one posed in the U.S. Census and the SCF.
A second, no less significant problem is that each of these surveys offers only two options to describe both sex and gender, preventing any collection whatsoever of data on people who do not identify strictly as male/female or man/woman or, for that matter, binary transgendered individuals.
And the third key flaw is that all three surveys cited above ask the respondent to identify the gender or sex of other people. This approach is clearly subject to error, particularly for transgendered and gender non-conforming individuals who may not present either in perceived accordance with the sex assigned at birth nor the gender with which they identify.
In a cultural context where LGBT individuals risk potential violent consequences for revealing themselves within households and communities, it is also important for researchers to consider why they need to know, and what they are aiming to measure. Attempting to determine a subject’s sex, gender, or sexual orientation directly can be awkward or even traumatic, while attempting to determine a subject’s sex, gender, or sexual or orientation indirectly is almost certain to generate inaccuracies. With this in mind, it behooves researchers and their subjects to be entirely clear on the phenomenon they seek to observe, and to find respectful ways to accurately elicit this information.
Grappling with these questions requires that researchers question prevailing assumptions regarding the channels we intend to observe. What is it about “men” that results in them earning $1 for every $0.80 a “woman” earns? Is it their personal identity as a man? Is it the external perception of them as men? Is it that their partnerships and intentions to partner are predominately with women? Is it their chromosome structure? Is it their genitalia? Precision and relevance of our research requires us to disambiguate all the culturally-specific attributes we implicitly associate with someone being a “man” or a “woman” or, to the extent that these have a culturally reified notion, “transgendered” or “gay.”
Thus the value of the SOGI IWG guidelines for researchers in defining, distinguishing and measuring sex, gender, and sexuality when gathering and interpreting demographic data. The working group followed up with a second report, published on September 23, 2016, offering guidelines on when and why to choose different measurement strategies. The report evaluates existing metrics for measurement error, and suggests best practices for more accurate measurement. It also pays important attention to social issues that may prevent accurate data collection, information which is important to consider given the often politically charged context of LGBT life in America.
For researchers who are new to distinguishing gender from sex, understanding the problems faced by people with same-sex partners, and confronting non-binary identities, engagement with SOGI data may feel a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. But the time for brushing off the violence and injustice faced by the LGBT community is past. Hopefully, SOGI IWG will help us build the tools to generate awareness and overdue change.