ACS Phone Interviewer Training Manual - Handling Non-Binary Sex responses


We are looking for best practices to train our phone interviewers on how to best handle situations when a respondent does not identify as Male or Female when we ask the sex question.

We have a long terms plan to change the questions to include the full spectrum of sexual orientation / gender identity choices, but at the moment we are in need of improving our phone interviewer training to ensure we properly and sensibly handle these situations.

Since the ACS / Decennial Census only collects the Male / Female also, I was wondering if anyone has come across their interviewer training manual or any guidance on this area



  • Hi Ana,

    The format of the American Community Survey question on sex must be consistent with the question on sex approved for use in the Decennial Census. Both formats ask respondents “What is this person’s sex?” with instructions to mark one box – either male or female. The response options fully represent sex. Thus, we cannot change the response options for the question on sex in the American Community Survey. The term “sex” is used in the decennial census and the American Community Survey because the Census Bureau intends to collect information on sex rather than on gender. The purpose of the question is to collect information on the biological attributes of men and women (chromosomes, anatomy, hormones, etc.) rather than on genderGender is a social construction whereby a society or culture assigns certain tendencies or behaviors to the labels of masculine or feminine. These assignments may differ across cultures and among people within a culture (and even across time). Gender may or may not correlate precisely with sex - depending on the society or culture or time period. Wording of the question on sex very specifically intends to capture a person's biological sex and not their gender. An individual's response to the question on sex is based upon self-identification. Therefore, each individual must determine how he or she will respond to this question.


  • The city I work for conducts many telephone and web surveys of of our residents for a wide variety of reasons.  We have been working to standardize the phrasing of socioeconomic questions, so we can introduce some level of comparability and compare results to ACS and other benchmarks.  The question of sex and gender is probably the toughest one we have struggled with.  Caleb is correct to separate the questions of sex from gender. I would also note that sexual orientation is a third variable here.  I don't have any solutions to offer at this stage but am curious to hear how other organizations have handled this set of topics.

    Here is the language that has been suggested by our LGBTQ+ Commission for gender:

    • Female/woman 
    • Male/man 
    • Non-binary/gender non-conforming (Gender is not exclusively female or male and/or does not fit into one gender category) 
    • Transgender (Sex assigned at birth is different than gender [Not cisgender]) 
    • Cisgender (Sex assigned at birth is the same as gender [Not transgender]) 
    • Self-describe [please enter] 
    • Choose not to answer 

    Note that this proposed language does conflate sex and gender to some degree and does not address sexual orientation.  Does anyone have access to the language used on the recent Pulse survey that provided results based on sexual orientation?

  • Hi Cliff, Thank you. You can find here a link to the Census site on the HH Pulse survey. It contains the wording. 

  • Thanks Caleb for the detailed response. How does the Census / ACS handle responses that are not Male or Female to the sex question?  Do they use imputation? If so, what are the details on the imputation? 

    For the NRFU or phone version, do the answer choices include a "Refusal", "Other - write in" so interviewers can collect responses other than Male or Female?   

    I haven't been able to find an interviewer manual or imputation description in the technical documents for ACS or Decennial Census. 



  • Hi Ana,

    In general, it's important for respondents to understand the difference between sex (what we ask) and gender (what we don't ask, currently).  These concepts are often conflated, but they are not the same.  Sex (male or female) is a complex biological concept that deals with anatomy, hormones, and genetics.  Gender is a social construct that ascribes certain behaviors and other cultural norms to the terms "masculine" and "feminine."  "Non-binary" is a term that deals with gender identity and those concepts of masculinity and femininity (the "binary").  Non-binary does not relate to sex--people who are male can have a feminine gender identity, a masculine identity, an identity somewhere in-between or completely distinct from the two, or a more fluid identity.  Same for female.
    I'm not sure if you are actually referencing "non-binary" or if your question is more general about persons who don't identify as distinctly male or female.  The term "intersex" describes a constellation of conditions that results in persons who are not clearly biologically male or female.  Currently, we do not have a way for respondents to indicate that they are intersex on the ACS (or any other Census Bureau surveys or the Census), but it is on our list of potential future topics for research.  Our current guidance is that respondents should respond either male or female based on their best current identification of their sex (not gender). Respondents are free to respond however they wish based on how they currently identify.  The sex question is designed--like most ACS questions--to measure the current state, not a state at some point in the past.
    Respondents should know that they should not mark both the male and female boxes on the ACS.  This will result in missing data, which means the Census Bureau will assign an answer for them based on other information we have, the same as for any other question.  As far as how assignment and imputation for sex works, this is not a simple answer.  The procedure for assigning or imputing sex when missing is intertwined with age and relationship.  However, in general, we can say that we do our best to use other information provided for the household to fill in missing data for sex.  Examples include first name, which is highly correlated with sex, or relationship.  Our research indicates that sex is one of the most accurately imputed variables on the ACS, but imputation is still no substitute for an answer provided by a respondent.
    I hope this helps!
  • Thanks Caleb. I appreciate the explanation and walking me through the details.

    I am specifically referring to the "sex" question with the Male/Female choices as asked in the ACS / Decennial Census today. Even though most respondents probably select Male/Female, there would be a subset that would not so my main ask is to understand in more detail how the Census handles these scenarios real time ---- especially during NRFU in person interview / or the phone version of the ACS. Does the CATI or CAPI version include a Refuse/DK or write in choice so the interview is able to proceed with the survey when respondents do not pick MALE OR FEMALE?

    In terms of missing data.... Is there anyone at the Census you would recommend me to contact to get more details on the imputation model used for the sex question today beyond what you have describe in your last paragraph. I was looking for a technical reference of the imputation specifications but was not able to locate it in the Census website.

    Thanks in advance for you guidance here.