Demographic questions ask about the characteristics of human populations, including gender & sex, age, race & ethnicity, geography, and income. In research, demographic questions are oftentimes an important and integral part of the study and data. However, there is a risk to both the participant and the data in asking demographic questions. Asking about demographics can feel triggering to the participant making them feel unsafe, which is why questions need to be framed in a culturally sensitive way and asked at the right time.
Demographic questions should only be asked when it is necessary and the data will be used. We have chosen to collect the demographic data and by collecting it, we are more deeply understanding populations and their particular needs while screening for ineffectiveness in certain populations. Demographic data is a powerful tool to draw comparisons between the efficacy of the UBI tool and participants personal experience with it.
The timing of the questions is important. Priming is a well-documented phenomenon that occurs when you expose a participant to unconsciously affects their following responses; this can negatively impact data. For example, if you ask gender questions before a math exam, the demographic question can negatively impact and prime women to do worse on the exam. That is why our demographic questions are asked at the end of the survey. This avoids priming and having our demographic questions influence our data.
In a time of unprecedented racial diversity, race and ethnicity should be a “select all that apply” category where participants have the option to identify as more than one ethnicity. Simultaneously, the options available should be as numerous as possible. We currently have 9 categories and, while that does not cover all possible race and ethnicities, we have chosen to use more categories such as having Asian, Indian/Pakistani, and Filipino as opposed to just Asian. Participants also have the option to fill in or not answer.
Gender-aware demographic questions should be as open as possible. The June 15th Supreme Court decision to extend gender-based discrimination to gender identity was an important step in the direction of acceptance and anti-discrimination. A demographic question dealing with gender and gender identity should be open to self-identities and inclusive. That is why participants can choose to select all that apply from a list of female, male, trans, and gender non-binary, or write in their own gender identity if they dont feel any of the listed categories fit them. This means participants can identify as trans and gender nonbinary, or female and another gender expression not listed, which they fill in. This better encompasses the gender fluidity someone may feel. And, as with all questions on the UBI, participants have the option to not answer.
Demographics do not work in isolation. To frame demographic questions as isolated binaries is not culturally sensitive to the many identities some people hold, while asking participants to choose parts of themselves rather than representing their full selves. That is why it is important to construct demographic questions in ways that are inclusive, flexible, and allow all respondents to feel seen and heard.