Data is important, both as a tool of research and as a tool of policy that can affect funding, government priorities and program development. In Ontario, as in other jurisdictions, there are major gaps in data collection for certain groups. We need to expand the pool of available data, but we must also pay careful attention to how this data is collected. The phrasing of survey questions or the response options available can dramatically affect response rates and data quality for some groups (Betts, 2008). In our experience working with postsecondary education data, these issues are especially true for survey questions on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
The need to improve data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is urgent. Analysis of data collected in the K-12 sector shows that graduation rates and educational experience differ greatly depending on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Comparable data is severely lacking in the higher education sector which prevents researchers from assessing how well LGBTQ+ students may be faring in their access to and experiences in postsecondary. Better data collection could lead to increased access or better success rates for these students.
Even when data is collected, it is not always reliable or complete. For example, the definitions of sex and gender are not always consistent or accurate. Sex and gender are different concepts and should be compared with extreme caution (Statistics Canada, 2018). For example, a person with female sex is not the same as a person who identifies woman as their gender. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal and individual experience of gender and gender expression refers to how a person publicly presents their gender (Ontario Human Rights Commission). An individual’s gender may change over time, and a person may choose differently when, where and to whom they disclose their gender, and/or how they express their gender. Sex is a term assigned at birth and is typically based on a person’s reproductive system. Statistics Canada has tested standards to guide data collection about gender of a person, and sex of a person.
Trans/transgender is a term that has been defined inconsistently across agencies such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), the Canadian Bar Association and Statistics Canada. This is not helpful from a data collection perspective. The Canadian Bar Association describes an individual as transgender if their gender identity is not congruent with their sex assigned at birth. Statistics Canada uses a similar definition that is defined relative to sex assigned at birth, but also includes those who are unsure of their gender or who do not identify with any gender. The OHRC, by contrast, offers a much more broad and inclusive definition of trans/transgender as an umbrella term which refers to people with diverse gender identities and expressions which differ from stereotypical gender norms. A key difference of the OHRC’s description of gender is that it is not defined relative to sex assigned at birth.
Unreliable or inconsistent data is a challenge which can be complicated further by people using terms like gender identity and sexual orientation interchangeably even though they are not (OHRC). Furthermore, some data is not being collected at all. Ontario postsecondary institutions are generally not collecting administrative data about sexual orientation despite a growing awareness of the importance of doing so. The Survey on Individual Safety in the Postsecondary Student Population (SISPSP) is a national survey of postsecondary students conducted in 2019 by Statistics Canada. It provides an example of phrasing for questions and has been successfully used to identify proportions of students by sexual orientation in postsecondary, and to assess the experiences of those students with regard to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (Burczycka, 2020). Including similar questions in the Canadian Census, General Social Surveys and Labour Force Surveys would broaden the range of data available and help policy-makers and researchers more meaningfully study issues of access for LGBTQ+ students.
An essential precursor to improving data collection is developing trust and partnerships with historically underrepresented and undercounted groups. The sector must build goodwill among communities that may be wary of data collection efforts based on a history of injustice that has resulted in adverse relationships with government and other data collection agencies. To that end, questions about sexual orientation and gender identity and expression were developed through Statistics Canada’s Center for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics in consultation with various gender and LGBTQ+ groups. Recent studies have validated questions on gender and sexual orientation in a Canadian context and include recommendations and examples of survey questions. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has also provided guidance about collecting data in such a way as to avoid fears of discrimination.
We expect that survey questions will continue to evolve and improve in conjunction with research, community consultations and data standard verifications. This process is not exclusive to sexual orientation and gender identity, of course; best practice in question validation and language is continuously shifting and has informed survey design and the collection of administrative data for decades. Meaningful efforts by groups such as Statistics Canada and school boards across the province demonstrate that this can be done and done well. There is no excuse not to collect this data.
Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.