Skip to Main Content
Go to Penn Libraries homepage   Go to Guides homepage
Banner: RDDS; Research Data & Digital Scholarship displayed between 3D mesh surfaces

Creating Inclusive Surveys

General information

For most of these demographic questions, there are a few things to do to immediately be more inclusive:

  • Include an "another" for write in answers
  • Allow participants to chose multiple responses - people often identify with more than one group
  • Include a "prefer not to say" option
  • Include a "none of these" option
  • Randomize how the groups are displayed - we often consider white, cis, straight, man to be the "default" responses and have these options appear first. By putting other options first, you signal that you don't see these as the typical or more common answers.

Gender and Sex

Many surveys ask about gender and sex and looking at your data along these lines can be interesting. There are things to consider when asking about these facets.

First - sex and gender are not interchangable. Sex refers to the anatomical and biological characteristics of a person, generally as they appear at birth. Gender refers to the social and cultural differences that are applied to a person. Neither of these traits are binary. If you've determined you need to ask about sex or gender on your survey, these formats are more inclusive:


  • Male
  • Female
  • Intersex
  • Prefer not to say
  • Another (specify)


  • Woman*
  • Man*
  • Gender fluid
  • Genderqueer
  • Agender
  • Nonbinary
  • Unsure
  • Prefer not to say
  • Another (specify) 

* It may be important to know if someone is transgender. In this case, it's recommend that you add options for trans man, trans woman, cis man, and cis woman. Cis is a term that refers to people who were born the sex that corresponds to their gender identity. This term is not known by everyone, so you may need to define it in your survey. Another option is to add a separate question asking if someone is trans or cis.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to what people a person is attracted to. If you've determined you need to know sexual orientation of your participants, these are some more inclusive terms to include in the question. Note that some terms have different definitions and you may want to define terms in your question.

Sexual orientation:

  • Asexual (not sexually attracted to others)
  • Aromantic (not romantically attracted to others)
  • Bisexual (attracted to any sex)
  • Pansexual (attracted to people of all genders, or regardless of gender)
  • Heterosexual (attracted to people of another sex or gender)
  • Homosexual (attracted to people of the same sex or gender)
  • Queer (variety of definitions)
  • Unsure
  • Prefer not to say
  • Another (specify)

Family Makeup

When asking about family or household members, remember that not all families look the same. Family or household members may include:

  • Spouse - same or different gender than participant
  • Non-spouse partner - same or different gender than participant, may or may not use boyfriend/girlfriend terms
  • Parents - many different combinations possible, possibly just one parent
  • Siblings - may or may not use sister/brother terms
  • Step-, half-, and adoptive family members - including parents or siblings but may include extended family
  • Extended family - grandparents, aunts, uncles, other types of relatives
  • Family friends and participant friends - some friends are considered family. If genetic or legal relations are important, make this clear in your question
  • None - for a variety reasons, a participants may not have any family or have no knowledge about their family

Race and Ethnicity

Like gender and sex, people sometimes make the mistake of lumping race and ethnicity together. They are separate things, though, and should be treated that way. Race refers to characteristics a person is born with and may relate to skin color and other physical characteristics. Ethnicity is related to where a person comes from, their beliefs, customs, and/or traditions. 

There are many ways to ask about race and ethnicity depending on the information you're looking for. Data collected about race and ethnicity tend to be messy and unless it's truly something you need for your research, it might not be worth asking.

If you've decided you need to ask questions about race or ethnicity, this blog post from QuestionPro offers some good approaches to take with these questions.

Some broad rules of thumb include:

  • allow participants to select as many as they feel apply to themselves
  • allow participants to enter text as an Other field
  • allow participants to skip the question
  • be conscientious about which ethnicities and races are listed first or last or otherwise indicating a "norm"


Religion tends to be a bit more straightforward than race and ethnicity. Like the other topics on this page, be sure to include an Other option, a None option, and a Prefer not to answer options. Which religions you choose to enumerate can be based on the most common religions in your region or the region(s) where your survey participants are located.

An example:

What is your religion or religious philosophy?

  • Christian (Catholic, Protestant or any other Christian denominations)
  • Buddhist
  • Hindu
  • Muslim
  • Jewish
  • Sikh
  • No Religion
  • Prefer not to say
  • Another (specify)


Penn Libraries Home Franklin Home
(215) 898-7555