Considerations When Assessing Sex and Gender in Research

The IRB at the University of Maine encourages researchers to be sensitive to and inclusive of differences when collecting data about identities of participants.


Gender/Gender Identity is a person’s internal held sense of their gender, regardless of biology.

Sex refers to biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences. Sex is assigned at birth.

Sexual Orientation is a term used to describe one’s pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction.

Sample Questions

Below are sample questions and response options for gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation.

1. What is your current gender identity? (Check all that apply.)

  • Male
  • Female
  • Transgender female / trans woman (or Male-to-Female (MTF) transgender, transsexual, or on the trans female spectrum)
  • Transgender male / trans man (or Female-to-Male (FTM) transgender, transsexual, or on the trans male spectrum)
  • Non-binary, genderqueer, or genderfluid
  • Gender identity not listed:
  • Prefer not to reply

2. What is your sex assigned at birth?

  • Male
  • Female
  • Intersex
  • Not Listed:
  • Prefer not to reply

3. What is your sexual orientation?

  • Heterosexual/Straight
  • Gay/lesbian
  • Bisexual
  • Pansexual
  • Not listed:
  • Prefer not to reply

4. [If investigators will refer to participants directly it is respectful to ask which pronouns they should use]:

What pronouns would you like study staff to use when referring to you? (The PIs may want to consider introducing themselves by name and pronouns to demonstrate what this looks like and to indicate that this is an inclusive space).

    • He/him/his
    • She/her/hers
    • They/them/theirs
    • Other (please specify):

Tips for Researchers

  • Use the term sex when reporting biological factors and gender when reporting gender identity, psychosocial or cultural factors.
  • Consider if it is relevant to the study to include questions regarding sexual health history and/or sexual orientation.
  • Sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation are both sensitive and personal characteristics. Therefore, it is important to protect this information, especially when recorded as identifiable. Investigators must ensure that research subjects provide this information in a location where they are comfortable and that ensures their privacy.
  • All study documents (including surveys) should use gender-neutral language, avoiding gendered terms (e.g., mailman, chairman) and gendered pronouns (he, she, he/she). Gendered terms should be replaced with non-gendered versions (e.g., mail carrier instead of mailman or chairperson instead of chairman). Sentences using gendered pronouns should either use gender-neutral pronouns (e.g., singular they as in “Each subject will receive their gift card upon completing the study.”) or be reworded entirely to avoid such pronoun use (e.g., “Subjects will receive their gift card upon completing the study.”).
    Avoid presuming roles whenever possible. For example say “spouse/partner” instead of “husband/wife”.
    Incorporate gender neutral diagrams in research materials.
  • Do not assume pronouns when interacting with a subject until they identify a preference.
  • Train your research team members to increase their comfort level in asking and answering sensitive questions about gender and sexual orientation from subjects. The Fenway Institute is a good source for training materials.

References and Resources