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  • Ask eAIR
  • 02.17.21

Emerging Trends and Best Practices for Collecting Information on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

  • by Brooke Kile, Director, Institutional Research, Marian University

Dear eAIR: What are the emerging trends and best practices for collecting information on gender identity and sexual orientation?

First and foremost, trends and best practices should be considered in the context of your campus demographics and your institutional culture. What works for a large, public, liberal arts institution may not work at a small, private, faith-based institution. IR professionals will need support from other campus stakeholders to adopt practices that either establish a campus culture inclusive of LGBTQ individuals or continue to improve practices already in place at your institution.

Technical Considerations

Preferred name is common across most vendor applications and is a good starting point for establishing inclusivity practices. If your institution hasn’t implemented a preferred name policy, EDUCAUSE provides guidance. 

While most vendor products offer flexibility in storing preferred names, flexibility to store data on gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or preferred pronouns may not be built-in functionality in some applications. If your campus is just beginning conversations on collecting and storing information about gender identity and sexual orientation, one of the first considerations should be whether your Student Information System (SIS) and/or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) has the functionality to support it. For campuses without built-in functionality, the conversation may need to shift toward identifying the resources needed to customize or develop your own solution.

AACRAO also provides “Good, Better, Best” practices for various student data collection (gender, sex, pronouns, preferred name, etc.) in their 2019 publication, Student Identity. This document addresses a variety of best practices for institutions in various stages of implementing LGBTQ inclusive practices.  

Reporting Considerations 

The U.S. Department of Higher Education requires institutions to report gender as a binary construct (either man or woman), which creates challenges for institutions looking to improve their inclusivity.

The University of California has a gender mapping document for federal reporting that may serve as an example of how to meet reporting requirements outside of the binary gender construct. Whatever your campus decides, it is important for all stakeholders to understand whether your institution uses gender mapping for reporting and that the methodology is consistently applied. 

Data Governance Considerations

If your institution currently collects or will collect information on student gender identity and/or sexual orientation (or expand out to faculty and staff), it will be important to bring in a representative from the institution’s data governance team. The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles provides a strong foundation for having conversations with other campus stakeholders on how to protect privacy and confidentiality as well as making intentional efforts to protect individual information from misuse or use that could cause harm. If your institution doesn’t have a formal data governance committee or structure, then your office should work with other key stakeholders to draft a document that outlines your institution’s policies for protecting data privacy and confidentiality.

Further, with the possible legal implications surrounding Title IX, this may also be a conversation with your legal counsel or campus ombudsperson. If your institution chooses to collect this information, it should also have a detailed policy on when it is appropriate to use the information for reporting, communication, or research. A statement of transparency that addresses how the institution uses student data and what privacy protections are afforded is paramount.

Final Takeaways

  • Keep the conversation going. What worked for your institution five years ago may not be serving your students today. IR professionals can help facilitate discussions with other stakeholders on what current inclusivity practices should be revisited and/or what new ideas should be considered.
  • No step is too small. As many of the resources presented in this article show, IR professionals have a flexible toolkit to help their campus think about inclusivity in a way that affirms their institutional culture and values.
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eAIR is the newsletter of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR). From its start in October 1987 to today, eAIR remains one of the most important tools for providing news to the higher education community.

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