Ask for only what you need
Each additional question is an added responsibility to maintain the security of that information. Asking nuanced and detailed questions may not be necessary if the information you need could be answered in a more generic way.
Determine what information is truly needed to administer your program or service or assess participation metrics, and ask for only that information—nothing more. Also be mindful of data that the user may have already provided in previous forms for your program, product, service, or another one in your division.
An event registration that requires confirmation that attendees are of legal US drinking age:
Check the box below if you are 21 years of age or older.
Please share your date of birth.
Consider your audience
In most cases, the intended user for your form will impact not only the types of questions you ask but also the answer options and what is legal to ask at all.
Consider the following questions and contexts when creating the form.
- Who is completing this form? Who will be participating or using the program, product, or service?
- If the user is a minor, parental consent will be required for the collection, use, transfer, and disclosure of personal information for the minor. ACS staff and contractors should contact the Legal Office for guidance.
- Are most of the users US based? Consider how language used in the US might be interpreted differently by international users.
- Are most users likely to be students or working professionals? How might you ask questions differently or adjust the answer options accordingly?
State the purpose of the request for information
Stating the purpose of the information can increase response rate because people will understand that providing the information may help them personally or help the organization.
Specifically state why you are asking for the information, how it will be used (for example, if the data will be used in aggregate), and how long it will need to be kept.
In an ACS program application:
To help the American Chemical Society track the effectiveness of recruiting efforts and ensure it considers the needs of all program participants, please consider the following optional question. Your demographic information will be used only in aggregate and kept within ACS records for one year after the program ends.
In an award application:
The American Chemical Society requires the following personal information to confirm eligibility, process applications, and conduct program evaluation surveys. Any collected demographic information will be used only in aggregate.
Disclose who has access
Sensitive personal information requires a great degree of care in handling, specifically where the data are stored and who has access to them. Users need to know that their information will be secure and accessible only by those authorized by the program.
Affirm ACS’s commitment to nondiscrimination, diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect
It is helpful to inform users that responses to questions on a form will not be used to prevent participation or otherwise disqualify them from receiving services or participating in a program.
State ACS’s commitment to nondiscrimination before asking certain demographic questions. Consider providing a link to the ACS Statement on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Respect.
Before asking about gender identity:
Do you have any physical or cognitive disabilities? Please select all that apply.”
Give users the opportunity to opt out
Providing an opt-out response assures data collectors that people did not inadvertently skip the question. It also gives users the right to privacy.
Add the option “Prefer not to say” for each demographic question.
Allow for multiple responses rather than a single choice, where applicable
In a question on race and ethnicity, restricting responses to one option denies users the ability to acknowledge their full racial and ethnic background. Similarly, there may be other questions where it is possible to select more than one option, such as pronouns or college major.
Consider carefully which questions have instances where a user may need to choose more than one option. Specifically state that people may select all that apply. Examples include pronouns, race and ethnicity, and college major.
Order the responses in alphabetical or numerical order
The American Psychological Association’s “Bias-Free Language” guidelines explain, “Be aware that the order of social group presentation may imply that the first-mentioned group is the norm or standard and that later-mentioned groups are abnormal or deviant.”
Present options in an objective order, such as alphabetical or numerical.
Avoid the term “Other”
The term “othering” means to treat or consider people as alien to oneself. Using the term “other” as an option for people for whom other responses are inaccurate is a form of othering. Using a more inviting phrase to signal an open-response section is more respectful. The label “Other” also does not make it obvious that you’re providing a free-response option.
The Journal of the American Medical Association says, “The nonspecific group label 'other' for categorizing race and ethnicity is uninformative and may be considered pejorative. . . . The term should not be used as a ‘convenience’ grouping or label unless it was a prespecified formal category in a database or research instrument. In such cases, the categories included in ‘other’ groups should be defined and reported. Authors are advised to be as specific as possible when reporting on racial and ethnic categories (even if these categories contain small numbers).” The Urban Institute, in its 2021 guide Do No Harm: Applying Equity Awareness in Data Visualization, recommends alternative phrasing, such as “Additional groups” or “Identity not listed,” even when reporting data from a survey that used the word “Other.”
Use “Self-describe” instead of “Other” to label an option in which people can write a response. When reporting data, do not combine all write-in responses or responses with low response rates under the label “Other.”
Some individuals may not use their legal name regularly. But in some instances, the legal name is required to render services (for example, if the form will be used to provide payment or to arrange lodging, air, or train reservations).
If the legal name or name on a government-issued ID is necessary for you to run your program, then ask for “Name” and “Legal name (if different).” Use the “Name” response in your interactions with the user and the legal name only when needed for documentation purposes (and see the “Trans inclusion” section of Embedding LGBT+ Inclusivity in Scientific Workplaces: A Guide for Employers, by the Royal Society of Chemistry).
Ensure that your forms can accommodate surnames with multiple parts and names with accent marks.
The titles of courtesy "Miss," "Ms.," "Mrs.," and "Mr." do not include gender-neutral options. While there is debate on whether “Mx.” as a title is gender inclusive (meaning anyone can use it) or whether it should be exclusive to nonbinary people, providing “Mx.” as an option gives all users the option to select a title that confers respect. There are other titles in addition to “Mx.,” such as “Ind.,” “Misc.,” and “Pr.,” so allow space for people to describe the title they use. In addition, many people prefer to use no title at all.
Include “Mx.” and “Prefer no title” as options, and include space for people to self-describe.
Gender identity versus sex
Gender Spectrum, an organization working to create gender-inclusive environments for children and teens, defines “gender identity” as “our deeply held, internal sense of self as masculine, feminine, a blend of both, neither, or something else. Identity also includes the name we use to convey our gender. Gender identity can correspond to, or differ from the sex we are assigned at birth. The language a person uses to communicate their gender identity can evolve and shift over time, especially as someone gains access to a broader gender vocabulary.”
Because gender identity does not always strictly match one’s biological sex, labeling this demographic question as “Gender identity” or “gender” instead of “sex” emphasizes that the question is about one’s current identity.
Gender identity options
Providing only “man” and “woman” options for gender ignores nonbinary people and people of other genders (for example, agender, two spirit). People may also not want to share their gender with an employer or professional society.
When asking about gender or gender identity, include “Nonbinary” as an option and an open field for people to self-describe their gender. As with other questions, provide an option to decline to answer the question.
Race and ethnicity
Some people do not consider their race and ethnicity separately. For example, in 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 67% of Hispanic adults described Hispanic as part of their racial background, not just an ethnic background. Additionally, giving users the ability to choose multiple options enables users to more specifically describe a multiracial background. The answer options provided in the template below include origin as a consideration, making the form meaningful for either a US-based or international group of users. For example, someone that identifies as a Black immigrant from an African country may not identify as African American. Additionally, people in the Caribbean may racially identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic or Latino, or White.
Combine race and ethnicity into one question. Allow users to select more than one race and ethnicity, and give space to self-describe. If you are reporting on programs or services with significant mention of participant race and ethnicity, consider reviewing “Updated Guidance on the Reporting of Race and Ethnicity in Medical and Science Journals” from the Journal of the American Medical Association for recommendations.
Capturing LGBTQ+ self-identity has practical and symbolic implications. If you are collecting participation metrics for a program or service, the option to self-identify makes this dimension of diversity visible. It also shows that ACS recognizes LGBTQ+ inclusion (and support as an ally) as on par with racial, gender, and other identities. Asking the question respectfully, however, is still of utmost importance. The phrase “sexual preference” implies that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or another sexual orientation is voluntary. Additionally, asking whether someone identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community should be sufficient for the purposes of capturing the data. If you need data on transgender people, adding a question about whether someone identifies as transgender immediately after asking for gender should be sufficient. Asking more detailed or nuanced questions is not usually necessary for ACS programs, products, and services. If the form is offered internationally, note that there are some countries with hostile social environments or conservative cultures, including some countries that criminalize being LGBTQ+.
Be mindful of what information is actually needed. Do not use the phrase “sexual preference.” Do not ask for detailed nuances beyond self-identifying as LGBTQ+. If you need to ask about transgender status, ask whether a person identifies as transgender after asking for gender.
Organizations and individuals define disability differently. For example, the ADA National Network, an organization providing guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), explains, “It is important to remember that in the context of the ADA, ‘disability’ is a legal term rather than a medical one. Because it has a legal definition, the ADA’s definition of disability is different from how disability is defined under some other laws, such as for Social Security Disability related benefits.” And many people who might fall under a definition of “disability”—such as deaf people, autistic people, and people with a mental illness—may not consider themselves disabled. So when asking about whether users have a disability, it’s important to define your terms and the purpose of asking for the information. An example is Form CC-305, which is used by US federal organizations to invite job applicants to self-identify as disabled. The form starts by explaining why it is asking for self-identification and then defines what it considers to be a “disability” and lists common examples.
Explain the purpose of asking for disability identification—for example, is it to track progress in encouraging people with disabilities to apply for or participate in a program? Is it to help track the diversity of participants? Is it to enable the organization to offer accommodations? Then define what you mean by “disability,” and consider giving examples. If your goal is simply to ensure all users can access your program or service, ask what accommodations users need instead of asking about disability status. Ensure questions about disability do not violate any nondiscrimination laws, and tell users that providing the information is voluntary. Employers who want to ask applicants or employees about disability should contact their human resources departments for more guidance on specific wording to use.
If you are creating a survey or form for ACS and need to ask demographic questions, consider the template below for recommended options and verbiage. Note that open bullet points are radio buttons (meaning only one answer can be provided), and square checkboxes indicate that users should be able to select all that apply. Ensure that your form has built-in logic to prevent other responses if “Prefer not to say” is selected. Also ensure that all self-describe selections require completion of the open-ended response.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) is actively committed to cultivating a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and respectful community of chemistry professionals. Read more of the ACS Statement on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Respect.
Most commonly asked questions:
Resources on inclusive language for forms
- Alchemer. “How to Write Better Demographic Survey Questions (with Examples).” June 7, 2021.
- Fernandez, Todd, Allison Godwin, Jacqueline Doyle, Dina Verdin, Hank Boone, Adam Kirn, Lisa Benson, and Geoff Potvin. “More Comprehensive and Inclusive Approaches to Demographic Data Collection.” Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition. https://doi.org/10.18260/p.25751.
- Flanagin, Annette, Tracy Frey, and Stacy L. Christiansen. “Updated Guidance on the Reporting of Race and Ethnicity in Medical and Science Journals.” JAMA, J. Am. Med. Assoc. 326, no. 7 (2021): 621–27. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.13304.
- Frederick, Jennifer K. “Four Strategies for Crafting Inclusive and Effective Demographic Questions.” Ithaka S+R, Nov. 18, 2020.
- Hughes, Jennifer L., Abigail A. Camden, and Tenzin Yangchen. “Rethinking and Updating Demographic Questions: Guidance to Improve Descriptions of Research Samples.” Psi Chi J. Psychol. Res. 21, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 138–51.
- Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “LGBTQ Self-Identification in the Workplace.” 2020.
- Ke, Mei. "An (updated) LGBTQ+ friendly survey template." February 22, 2022.
- Ng, Ruth. “How to Ask about Gender in Forms Respectfully.” Little Curiosity Blog, Jan. 5, 2020.
- Office of Regulatory Affairs and Research Compliance, Harvard Longwood Campus. “ORARC Tip Sheet: Inclusive Demographic Data Collection.” April 20, 2020.
- Patten, Eileen. “Who Is Multiracial? Depends on How You Ask.” Pew Research Center, Nov. 6, 2015.
- Rosenberg, Sarai. “Respectful Collection of Demographic Data.” Medium, March 14, 2017.
- Royal Society of Chemistry. "Diversity data collection in scholarly publishing." 2022.
- United States Census Bureau. “How Disability Data Are Collected from the American Community Survey.” Last modified Nov. 21, 2021.