Sex isn’t Gender: Reforming Concepts and Measurements in the Study of Public Opinion


The importance of sex and gender to political behavior is reflected in the volume of work examining gender gaps in public opinion and partisan choice. Despite their centrality, sex and gender are poorly measured in survey research. The principal problem is the conflation of gender with sex in survey research. Consequently, gender is typically treated as a dichotomy, with no response options for androgynous gender identities, or indeed degrees of identification with masculine or feminine identities. We compare a new measure of genuine gender identification with a conventional measure of biological sex to determine whether the practice of using sex as a proxy for gender is sound. Sex is a fair proxy for gender, but for about a quarter of our sample, it is not. Moreover, greater nuance is gained when analyses incorporate a finer-grained measure of gender than is possible by using biological sex as a substitute. We argue that this is simply the start to an important conversation and that more research is needed to ascertain how we might best measure “gender” in the future.

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  1. 1.

    There is imprecision built into the traditional sex variable, precisely because interviewers are being asked to determine the respondent’s sex, either by sight or by sound. Of course, in a web survey, incorrect “guesses” might be balanced out by the ability of respondents to self-select to the group with which they identify. While self-reports of attitudes are certainly not always reliable, we suspect that self-reporting of sex/gender is more reliable than assumptions made by interviewers.

  2. 2.

    For example, we conducted an article search combining the terms “gender gap” and “public opinion” in the social sciences citation index. Examining the top thirty articles by volume of citations, we found that all of them use sex as proxies for gender, and call their sex variables gender variables. A list of the articles available from the authors.

  3. 3.

    Interestingly, the perceived shift in how sex/gender structured public opinion about war and security over the 2000 s had little veracity (Carroll 2006; Elder and Greene 2007). Particularly compelling are time-series analyses, which indicate that “the over time variation of support for defense spending among men and women is very similar. Each is conditioned principally by the past year’s change in defense spending and occasionally by war casualties and a trade-off between defense and civilian spending” (Eichenberg and Stoll 2012, p. 333). In short, shifts in the salience of the national security agenda did not have gender-conditional effects on attitudes toward security and military intervention.

  4. 4.

    It is important to note that we are not concluding that gender is a continuum. We simply note that this conception of gender is increasing in prevalence in society and popular culture, and therefore take a look at this in greater depth. The important thing for survey research is that the literature on gender has advanced a number of different conceptions of gender, and they are generally not dichotomous categories. We begin with a continuum in this paper, but are in no way wedded to this model of gender.

  5. 5.

    Interviews with representative samples of voters were conducted during six recent provincial elections: in Newfoundland and Labrador (September 7–October 10, 2011), Ontario (September 7–October 5, 2011), Manitoba (September 7–October 2, 2011), Alberta (April 4–22, 2012), British Columbia (April 25–May 13 2013) and Quebec (August 13–September 2012). The surveys were programmed and fielded by the polling firm Harris/Decima (Ottawa). The traditional sex variable (M/F) was included in the survey company’s pre-screener, along with age/year of birth, region, and language of interview.

  6. 6.

    In keeping with past practice in other election studies, we do not provide respondents with other response options, as our goal is to assess the traditional measure alongside of a gender-based alternative. Surveys are increasingly providing respondents with additional options and/or room to write in an alternative. In the absence of a “real” gender question, we think this makes sense.

  7. 7.

    A separate paper on the salience question has just been accepted for publication in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

  8. 8.

    Replication materials for all of the analyses presented in the manuscript are available at: doi:10.7910/DVN/SGKPSH.

  9. 9.

    There were a total 402 respondents, the vast majority of them women, whose sex and gender identity did not “match,” conventionally understood. We ran a series of logit analyses, attempting to understand whether there were factors that clearly explained an individual’s self-placement as a “crosser,” but very few variables made a difference: only sex was statistically significant and showed a clear impact on a respondent’s self-placement as a crosser. For the remaining analysis, we ignore the fact that they “crossed over” on the scale, and assess them in terms of their gender self-placement in the aggregate, alongside others who chose similar positions to them on the continuum, regardless of biological sex. We do think it is worth focusing on this group in more detail in the future. There might be a case to be made, for example, in grouping the “crossers” with those in the middle of the spectrum for the purpose of statistical analyses on the logic that both are quite different from self-identified 100% feminine females and 100% masculine males; in other words, both “crossers” and those in the middle of the gender spectrum are unconventional, to varying degrees. Bem’s work (e.g. 1974) noted that those with androgynous gender are more psychologically flexible and adaptable, for example. We flag this issue as something that deserves further, and substantially more detailed, exploration in the future.

  10. 10.

    Colleagues have suggested that there may also be a link between gender self-placement and sexual orientation, which seems plausible. Unfortunately we did not include a question about sexual orientation into our survey, therefore cannot speak to this with existing data. We do think that the inclusion of a sexual orientation variable into surveys in the future is absolutely essential, however, as this is a variable that has received very little attention in political behavior research to date.

  11. 11.

    We would like to thank one of our anonymous reviewers for this explanation. We think it makes a lot of sense.

  12. 12.

    We ran a logistical regression model given the binary dependent variable, and the independent variables included sex, education, employment status, marital status, religiosity, income, age, and province. Full model available in supplementary materials.

  13. 13.

    It is important to note at this point that we do not present the marginal effects of sex on gender self-placement. Understandably, the sex and gender variables were highly correlated, so much so that including sex in the graph made it impossible to see any variation in the impact of other socio-demographic factors. Sex is included in all of the models and is the most influential correlate of gender self-placement), we simply do not present the marginal effects because of their overwhelming size. Women were substantially more likely to place themselves in categories D and E (on the feminine end of the spectrum) and men were more likely to place themselves in categories A and B (on the masculine end of the spectrum).

  14. 14.

    All variables were recoded on a 0-1 scale so that the most left-leaning or progressive responses were coded as 1. See online appendix for full code book.

  15. 15.

    The full model included controls for education, employment status, union membership, marital status, religiosity, income, age, and region. Note too, for all issue attitudes we include left–right self-placement in the model as an independent variable. We ran traditional OLS models, since the dependent variables in all cases were coded on a 0-1 scale with multiple response options).

  16. 16.

    We wish to stress, again, that we are not advocating that this measure of gender, as delineated by a continuum, is the “right” or even ideal measure of gender. We think it is entirely possible that femininity and masculinity are actually two separate dimensions that together might encapsulate an individual’s gender. We want to reiterate that these questions formed part of a pilot project to determine whether we might be able to obtain more nuance from a more nuanced measure. We think that the results here provide solid evidence that we can dig deeper than a binary measure, and that doing so provides more information and insight than the traditional measure. More research is needed.


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We gratefully acknowledge the indispensable contribution of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to this research (Grant #435-2014-0307). The authors wish to thank a number of scholars who have commented on earlier drafts of this paper. In particular, we wish to thank Brenda O’Neill, Elisabeth Gidengil, Joni Lovenduski (for both inspiring this project and for commenting on an earlier draft of the paper), Kathleen Dolan, Kira Sanbonmatsu, Rosie Campbell, Sue Carroll, and Melanee Thomas for their careful read of the paper and for their suggestions for future research in this area. We would also like to thank Scott Matthews, Fred Cutler, Stuart Soroka, and Richard Johnston for their feedback on earlier drafts. Thanks are also due to Rebecca Wallace and Jacob Robbins-Kanter for research assistance. Many thanks to the three anonymous reviewers at Political Behavior, who pushed us on both the theory and data, and resulted in a much stronger paper. This study was supported by Grant 410-2011-0634.

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Correspondence to Amanda Bittner.

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Bittner, A., Goodyear-Grant, E. Sex isn’t Gender: Reforming Concepts and Measurements in the Study of Public Opinion. Polit Behav 39, 1019–1041 (2017).

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  • Gender
  • Sex
  • Measurement
  • Survey research
  • Gender gap