Looking beyond Scotland – #3 New Zealand

Stats NZ is the organisation responsible for conducting the census in New Zealand. The census takes place every five years and was last conducted in 2018.

In New Zealand the main uses of the census are:

  • Setting electoral boundaries and determining the number of general and Māori electorates.
  • Allocating resources and targeting government investments.
  • Costing government programmes.
  • Monitoring outcomes of small populations.
  • Informing social and market research.

Like other censuses discussed in this series, results from New Zealand’s 2018 census were not used to directly inform the everyday work of medical practitioners. Rather, any relevant data related to a person’s biology was collected on an individual basis directly by organisations responsible for this work.

New Zealand last conducted a census in 2018, it asked the question:

Are you male or female?

As was the case in the last Australian census, neither the paper nor online versions of the individual census form mentioned sex or gender. This enabled respondents to interpret the question as they wished and answer accordingly. No further questions in the 2018 census asked about gender identity or gender reassignment.

Although the paper and online census did not present a definition of sex, Stats NZ do present a definition of sex in their statistical standard (the rules used to standardise the way data is collected and statistics are produced). In 2013, they noted:

Sex is the distinction between males and females based on the biological differences in sexual characteristics.

However, and perhaps somewhat confusingly, Stats NZ also issued guidance on how to answer the sex question that appears to contradict this definition:

In responding to a question on sex, most people are able to classify themselves as either male or female. A person who has undergone sex reassignment is classified to that sex. A person who was of indeterminate sex and who has undergone sex assignment is classified to the assigned sex. Someone who is currently undergoing such procedures and living as the sex that they are taking steps towards is classified as that sex.

Furthermore, Stats NZ explained that for respondents who wished to indicate that their biological sex was neither male nor female (for example, they identified as intersex) they could request a paper version of the census and mark the boxes for both ‘male’ and ‘female’.

The statistical standard for sex also provides guidance for those working with the data on how to address respondents of an ‘indeterminate sex’. In these situations, people who are neither male nor female can be coded as a third, ‘indeterminate’ option. This option is intended only for administrative settings, rather than self-completed surveys.

Alongside the national census, Stats NZ also conducts regular surveys that capture information about a smaller sample of New Zealanders. In the most recent Stats NZ Household Economic Survey, running from July 2019 until June 2020, New Zealanders have the option to describe their gender identity (with the response options ‘male’, ‘female’ or a ‘non-binary gender’) and, in a question that asks about sex assigned at birth.

Key points:

  • The census does not present a definition of sex, nor did the individual 2018 census form explicitly state whether the question related to sex or gender.
  • Although Stats NZ’s definition of its sex variable relates to biology, guidance on how to answer the sex question relates to a person’s lived sex.
  • Those working with the data for Stats NZ (ie those collecting or inputting the data) have the option of categorising respondents using a third option, labelled ‘indeterminate sex’.
  • Stats NZ’s 2019-20 Household Economic Survey presents questions on gender identity (with the response options ‘Male’, ‘Female’ or ‘Non-binary gender’).

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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