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Self-Identification Survey Best Practices

Self-Identification Survey Best Practices

Below is a sample self-identification survey based on promising practices in the post-secondary education sector. It is intended to support academic staff associations in their advocacy for the collection and analysis of equity data.  

Instructions & Preamble 

To start, there should be clear instructions on how to complete the survey. Instructions and an FAQ should be made available to respondents to ensure the survey can be easily completed. This should indicate that respondents are being asked to self-identify in all categories that apply. For example: 

“You are invited to self-identify in as many categories as apply to you as you wish. You may identify in more than one group: please select all with which you self-identify.” 

Additionally, it is also important to state the purpose of the survey, the reasons for which it is being conducted, a statement about its legality, and a confidentiality statement. These can help build confidence in the survey, which in turn can help improve its response rate. 


Guidance for Self-Identification Questions and Terms 

It is advised to include an option not to respond throughout the survey, as appropriate, as well as options to specify the reasons. Respondents should be instructed to select all responses that apply where it is appropriate, to allow for more complex responses. 

While institutions may be collecting data in compliance with federal programs, the sample survey goes beyond federal legislation to help better identify and recognize intersectional and discrete experiences of discrimination based on: 

  • Gender  
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Abilities 
  • Indigeneity 
  • Racialization 

Compliance with some federal programs requires many institutions to collect data to report the representation status of the four federally designated employment groups in the Employment Equity Act. These are: women, visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples, and people with disabilities. However, these four broad categories are insufficient for understanding the full picture of employment equity and diversity in the workforce and its terminology and definitions are out of date. The sample survey is designed to collect the information required by the federal act to remain in compliance with it, and go far beyond these categories to get the necessary data to combat discrimination.  

To achieve its dual goal of collecting data to comply with federal legislation as well as for advocacy purposes, the survey sometimes asks two separate questions, for example, one seeking self-identification with the Employment Equity Act category and another asking more robust and detailed questions around identity. 



Gender is not a binary category. A person's current gender may differ from the sex a person was assigned at birth and from what is indicated on their current legal documents. Respondents should therefore be provided with the opportunity to identify along a gender identity and gender expression spectrum, and it should not be assumed that employees will have a single, fixed response over time. 

Since equity self-identification surveys do not seek to identify biological data about the workforce but the social barriers to employment, there should never be questions asking individuals to identify their sex. As barriers to employment are social rather than biological/medical, the question should ask about gender, even if these aspects may interact. Surveys should therefore not use the words “Female,” or “Male” but instead “woman” or “man”.  

The number of people who do not identify as women should not be assumed to be the number of people who identify as men. It is also possible for someone to identify in more than one gender identity and expression category. The sample first question below specifically identifies its purpose as collecting for the Employment Equity Act: it seeks information about self-identification with “woman,” but we cannot assume that everyone will answer this the same way as if they are asked more openly about gender. If the self-identification survey is not collecting for the purpose of compliance with the Act, this question could be omitted as the second question allows us to capture more significant data. 

1. Gender 

a. Under the Employment Equity Act, “women” are members of a designated group. 

Do you self-identify as a woman? 

  • Yes 
  • No 
  • I prefer not to respond 

b. Please indicate how you self-identify your gender (select all that apply): 

  • Woman 
  • Man 
  • Trans *  
  • Two-Spirit 
  • Genderqueer/Non-Binary **  
  • Another/prefer to specify ____________________________ 
  •  I prefer not to respond  

* Trans is an umbrella term that describes people with diverse gender identities and gender expressions that do not conform to stereotypical norms. It includes but is not limited to people who identify as transgender, transsexual, or gender non-conforming (gender variant, genderqueer), or an analogous term.   

** Genderqueer/Non-binary refers to individuals who do not follow gender stereotypes based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside of the man-woman binary. People who are non-binary may or may not identify as trans.12 


Sexual Orientation 

Sexual orientation is different and distinct from gender identity and expression. It should therefore be asked separately rather than collapsed into a single category. In recognition of the fluidity of sexuality, the survey should provide not only a multitude of options for identifying sexual orientation but also space for respondents to describe themselves voluntarily. Otherwise, a survey risks erasing or collapsing a very wide and diverse coalition into a single category which will not be able to yield an understanding of how discrimination takes place.  

While compliance with the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program requires the collection of data on sexual orientation, the Employment Equity Act does not. This means it is possible the institution has not been collecting data on employee sexual orientation at all. Because discrimination and marginalization continues towards LGBTQ2+ members, it is important to advocate for data collection which can help in monitoring and redress. 

2. Sexual Orientation 

Sexual orientation is the direction of one's sexual interest or attraction. It is a personal characteristic that forms part of who you are. It describes a range of human sexuality, including but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight. This survey recognizes that discrimination based on sexual orientation limits full and active participation in the workforce. The following questions are intended only to assist in identifying and removing barriers to employment. 

Please indicate how you self-identify your sexual orientation (select all that apply): 

  • Gay 
  • Lesbian 
  • Straight/Heterosexual 
  • Bisexual 
  • Queer 
  • Questioning 
  • Two-Spirit 
  • Another/prefer to specify ____________________________ 
  • I prefer not to respond 



It is crucial to use a social model of disability to recognize the ways ableism affects the accessibility, inclusion, participation, or experience of discrimination of persons with disabilities. The social model views disability as a social disadvantage that an environment imposes, created by social barriers rather than by any medical or physical condition. It focuses on removing barriers that restrict life choices. By contrast, a medical model of disability relies on the idea that there is something about a person that does not function in a manner that is considered “normal”. A medical model does not explicitly recognize that society is organized based on ableist, discriminatory assumptions. Ableism is often based on the view that disability is an “anomaly to normalcy,” rather than an inherent and expected variation in the human condition. This is why we recommend following the social model of disability. 

3. Persons with Disabilities 

Under the Employment Equity Act, a person with a disability has a long-term or recurring physical, mental, sensory, psychiatric and/or learning disability and considers their self to be disadvantaged in employment by reason of that disability, or believes that an employer or potential employer is likely to consider them to be disadvantaged in employment by reason of that disability. A person with a disability may also be someone whose functional limitations owing to their disability have been accommodated in their current job or workplace. 

c. Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability? 

  • Yes 
  • No 
  • I prefer not to respond 

d. If yes, please indicate the type of disability that applies: 

  • Visible 
  • Non-Visible or Invisible 
  • I prefer not to respond  


e. Please indicate how you self-identify (select all that apply): 

  • Person living with a physical disability 
  • Person living with a learning disability 
  • Person living with a mental health problem or illness 
  • Person living with low vision/vision disability 
  • Person who has difficulty hearing 
  • Person living with a disability not listed above, please describe ___________________ 
  • I prefer not to respond 


Indigenous peoples 

While the term Aboriginal has been historically used in Canada in reference to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada, and is term used in the Constitution, the term “Indigenous” is more commonly used by Indigenous peoples, scholars (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal), internationally, by the United Nations and in international rights documents. Some prefer the use of one term over the other for self-identification.  We therefore recommend the use of both.  

Due primarily to the impact of colonialism, some who are self-identifying as Indigenous have unknown Aboriginal citizenship or community membership and were raised with Western and not traditional knowledge. As such, CAUT’s Bargaining Advisory for Indigenization of the Academy recommends that people should be asked to self-identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuk (Inuit) and to identify which community, Band, Nation, government, or Inuit land claim agreement they belong to distinguish between those with Aboriginal ancestry from those with an Aboriginal identity.  

4. Indigenous/Aboriginal Peoples 

a. The Employment Equity Act defines an Aboriginal person as a North American Indian or a member of a First Nation, a Métis, or Inuit. North American Indians or members of a First Nation include status, treaty, or registered Indians, as well as non-status and non-registered Indians. Aboriginal peoples are a considered a designated group under the Employment Equity Act.  

Do you self-identify as an Aboriginal person as defined by the Employment Equity Act

  • Yes 
  • No 
  •  I prefer not to respond 

b. Please indicate all that apply to you: 

  • First Nations  
  • Métis * (i.e. members of the Métis Nation, namely, the Métis Nation of Ontario, the Manitoba Métis Federation, the Métis Nation—Saskatchewan, the Métis Nation of Alberta and the Métis Nation British Columbia) 
  • Inuk (Inuit) 
  • Native American Indian/Alaska Native/Pacific Islander 
  • Indigenous from outside Turtle Island/North America, please specify _________________ 
  • Another/prefer to specify ____________________________ 
  • I prefer not to respond 

*Please note that Métis refers to a distinct people: the Métis people have their own unique culture, traditions, language (Michif), way of life, collective consciousness, and nationhood. 


Are you a member of a First Nation or Indian band?  

Note: Include citizens of self-governing First Nations.  

  • No  
  • Yes, member of a First Nation or Indian band  

Specify name of First Nation or Indian band ______________________ 

Are you a member or citizen of a Métis organization or government?  

  • No  
  • Yes 

If ‘Yes’, which Métis organization or government?  

  • Métis Nation of Ontario  
  • Manitoba Métis Federation  
  • Métis Nation of Saskatchewan  
  • Métis Nation of Alberta  
  • Métis Nation of British Columbia  
  • Other  

Specify other Métis organization ______________________ 

Are you a beneficiary of an Inuit land claim agreement?  

  • No  
  • Yes  

If yes, which land claims agreement?  

  • Inuvialuit Final Agreement  
  • Nunavut Land Claims Agreement  
  • James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (Nunavik)  
  • Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement (Nunatsiavut) 


Race and Ethnicity 

Historically, the term “Visible Minority” has been used by the Canadian government, but is today seen as problematic as it posits whiteness as the norm.  

Our model survey recommends the use of the language of “racialization” to recognize and appropriately measure the social impact that racism and racial discrimination have on equity. To recognize that racialized peoples are not a uniform group, it is important to ask how one further self-identifies to be able to identify distinctions within the broader concept. 

As with the question on gender, here we suggest two distinct questions: in our sample survey, question 4a gathers data for purposes of the Employment Equity Act. By way of contrast, the example racial and ethnic origins response options in 4b were developed by the University of Toronto in consultation with communities. Respondents may select as many subcategories as apply. This question allows for better data collection for equity advocacy purposes. We recommend survey categories be developed through a consultative process that ensures the appropriate options are made available. 


2. Racialized Persons (also termed “Visible Minorities”)   

a. Under the Employment Equity Act, “visible minorities” are a designated group defined as people, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour. It is used to describe persons of colour or members of racialized communities who self-identify as non-white in colour or non-Caucasian in racial origin, regardless of birthplace or citizenship. 

Do you self-identify as a “visible minority” as defined by the Employment Equity Act

  • Yes 
  • No 
  • I prefer not to respond 

b. Please indicate the racial and ethnic origins you identify with (select all that apply): 

  • Asian  
    • Asian Caribbean (e.g. Guyanese, Trinidadian)  
    • East Asian (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Korean)  
    • European (e.g. British, French, Spanish, Portuguese)  
    • South Asian (e.g. Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan)  
    • South East Asian (e.g. Malaysian, Filipino, Vietnamese)  
    • Another (please specify) __________________  
  • Black  
    • African (e.g. Ghanaian, Kenyan, Somali)  
    • Caribbean (e.g. Barbadian, Jamaican, Grenadian)  
    • European (e.g. British, French, Spanish, Portuguese)  
    • North American (e.g. Canadian, American)  
    • South and Central American (e.g. Brazilian, Panamanian)  
    • Another (please specify) __________________  
  • Latin/Hispanic  
    • Caribbean (e.g. Cuban, Haitian)  
    • Central American (e.g. Mexican, Honduran)  
    • European (e.g. Spanish, Portuguese)   
    • South American (e.g. Brazilian, Argentinian)  
    • Another (please specify) __________________  
  • Middle Eastern  
    • North African (e.g. Libyan, Moroccan)  
    • Middle Eastern (e.g. Syrian, Lebanese)  
    • West Asia (e.g. Iran, Afghani)  
    • Another (please specify) __________________  
  • White  
    •  European (e.g. British, French, Polish, Russian)  
    •  North American (e.g. Canadian)  
    •  South American (e.g. Argentinian, Chilean)  
    •  Another (please specify) __________________  
  • Mixed Race  

If we have not identified a category with which you identify, please indicate which racial or ethnic origins you identify with below: 

  •  Another (please specify) __________________  
  •  Another (please specify) __________________  
  •  Another (please specify) __________________  
  • I prefer not to respond  

12 The 519, Glossary of Terms: