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Stanford sociologist urges rethinking of sex and gender in surveys

The International Olympic Committee is revisiting its standards for deciding which athletes are eligible to compete in men's or women's events. And in Washington, D.C., the signs on some public restrooms are changing to allow access for all genders.

Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein says she hopes the major social surveys in the United States will be next in line to reconsider how they classify Americans into "males" and "females" or "men" and "women."

"If the world is changing and [surveyors] are not changing the measures, it's not clear that we're getting the information we think we're getting, even if we ask the same question we always have," Saperstein said in an interview.

Traditional understandings of sex and gender found in social surveys – such as only allowing people to check one box when asked "male" or "female" – reflect neither academic theories about the difference between sex and gender nor how a growing number of people prefer to identify, Saperstein argues in a study she coauthored with Grand Valley State University sociology professor Laurel Westbrook.

In their analysis of four of the largest and longest-running social surveys in the United States, the sociologists found that the surveys not only used answer options that were binary and static, but also conflated sex and gender. These practices changed very little over the 60 years of surveys they examined.

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