Looking beyond Scotland – Introduction

How we collect sex and gender data is vital to help address many of society’s inequalities.

Whether it’s the use of transport networks, perceptions of crime or educational attainment, data related to a person’s gender can inform the diagnosis of a problem and determine the best actions in response.

This is only possible through disaggregation of the data, in which monolithic groups are broken-down into smaller, constituent categories and then analysed against each other.

This analysis should also adopt an intersectional approach, where the overlap of people’s identities highlight particularities in the data and new challenges. For example, without disaggregated data and an intersectional lens, we would not know about the differing experiences of black women and white women in UK higher education.

There are situations where information related to a person’s ‘biological sex’ (categorisation as male or female according to a mixture of biological factors) is important, such as particular health screenings and exposure to dangerous chemicals. However, this data is collected by organisations responsible for this work rather than via a national dataset. In Scotland, for example, the National Health Service does not use census data to inform its daily practice but instead relies on its own patient information datasets (such as the NHS Central Register).

Whether you are advantaged or disadvantaged by these structures often has little to do with biology but a lot to do with the meanings society has attached to markers of difference.

The value of national datasets, such as the census, is not found in what it says about individual respondents. Instead its power comes from what it says about how identity groups fit within wider structures that are most often gendered, racialised and in-built with heteronormative assumptions about ability, class, nationality and other identity characteristics. Whether you are advantaged or disadvantaged by these structures often has little to do with biology but a lot to do with the meanings society has attached to markers of difference, whether this be skin colour, sex characteristics, language or a range of other reasons.

A lot of work is about to commence in Scotland related to sex and gender data. The Scottish Government has announced the formation of a Sex and Gender Data Working Group; formation of a What Works? Gender Institute; and National Records Scotland is undertaking further question testing ahead of the 2021 census.

To develop a clearer idea of what Scotland might learn from work taking place elsewhere, I made contact with analysts in the census teams at four national statistical organisations. I wanted to learn, first-hand, how they ask about sex and gender and the research that underpins their approach. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, Statistics Canada, Central Statistics Office (Ireland) and Stats NZ were contacted in July 2019 and asked the following questions:

  • Does the census define ‘sex’?
  • If so, what is this definition – biological sex, legal sex, lived (self-identified) sex or something else?
  • Does the sex question present binary (male/female) or non-binary response options?
  • If non-binary, how are respondents who do not describe themselves as male nor female requested to respond?
  • Does the census ask a sex question and a gender (identity) question?

This sample of organisations is not a representative account of work taking place internationally. Rather, they were selected because they conduct their census in English and were therefore more likely to have shared understandings for the concepts of sex and gender. However, even in a common language, we cannot assume that those asking the questions or responding necessarily understood the concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in the same way (even within Scotland, there is much disagreement).

Over this series of blog posts, I will share findings related to ongoing work in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. Like Scotland, these countries have reflected on how they ask about sex and gender in their census and responded to these challenges in a variety of ways. By looking outwards, we can hopefully also evaluate our own practices and ensure that Scotland’s 2021 census presents an accurate account of how we see ourselves.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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