Do Numbers Lie? Reading Statistics on Sexual and Gender Minorities

PhD student, Department of Sociology, University of Washington; ICU graduate (2013)
[The article below is the same as the article that appears in the nineteenth issue of the CGS Newsletter.]

Although most empirical studies on sexual and gender minorities have tended to use qualitative research methods, recent years have seen an increase in the number of quantitative studies, including research by community organizations, academic research by scholars, and marketing surveys by advertising agencies. We asked Daiki Hiramori, who recently worked on a quantitative study by CGS and the non-profit organization Nijiiro Diversity, to share his thoughts on the significance of quantitative research and the interpretation of statistical data on gender and sexuality.

Nijiiro Diversity started the Survey on LGBT Issues in the Workplace Environment in 2013 in response to requests from both the private and public sectors for statistical data on the challenges and needs of sexual and gender minorities in order to help them develop LGBT-supportive policies. Quantitative methods are useful for revealing the structure and patterns of inequality in gender and sexuality by means of actual numbers. Statistical data is essential, along with qualitative data, in compiling evidence to combat the prevailing discrimination against sexual and gender minorities in Japanese society today.

Quantitative data and analysis tend to be regarded as "unbiased" and "objective," and consequently used to inform public policy. Only statistical analysis, however, is truly unbiased (i.e. the results of a chisquared test will always be the same no matter who conducts it). In reality, the significance of conducting quantitative research lies in the ability of a third party to verify the validity of the analytical process. This is because the researcher's subjectivity can be discerned quite easily in, for example, the selection of study participants, the wording of questions in a survey, and the choice of analytical methods used.

Such a view contradicts the criticisms of some feminist and queer researchers, who argue that quantitative approaches purport to be unbiased and able to elicit objective knowledge. Indeed, quantitative researchers themselves are perhaps most conscious of the fact that numbers do lie because they are constantly having to make subjective decisions in the process of quantitative analysis.

Of course, we do need to pay serious attention to insightful feminist and queer critiques of quantitative methods. For example, quantitative researchers need to be more conscious of how their approach itself is based on a presupposed gender binary and heteronormativity, reflecting the structural discrimination in the broader society. We also have a tendency to reify categories of gender and sexuality and regard them only in terms of variables, often ignoring the differences within those categories. At the same time, however, the potential applications of quantitative research methods should also be considered by queer and feminist researchers.

So how should we read all the statistical data on sexual and gender minorities, which has increasingly been generated in recent years? In my opinion, it is important to develop statistical literacy in quantitative research in general. When we see statistics in newspapers, on TV, or on the Internet, we need to consider the study results more critically, asking questions such as: Who conducted the study and for what reason? Are the response options for the questions appropriate? Is their interpretation of the study results valid? As we continue to accrue more statistical data on sexual and gender minorities in future research, it is vital that details of studies and their data (excluding personally identifiable information) be made publicly available where possible so that they can be verified by anyone who wishes to do so.