Gender by default – New Zealand’s proposed approach to collecting data about sex and gender

New Zealand’s official data agency has proposed a ‘gender by default’ approach to how the government collects data about sex and gender.

This proposal is part of a consultation being conducted by Stats NZ, New Zealand’s national statistical organisation and the body responsible for the country’s 2023 census. The consultation describes ‘gender by default’ as an ‘approach that defaults to the collection of gender data as opposed to sex at birth’ and that ‘collection of sex at birth information should be viewed as an exception where there is a specific need’.

As I have noted in previous blog posts about the design of the sex question in Scotland’s 2021 census, Stats NZ argue that ‘in most cases a person’s gender – their social and personal identity – is most relevant for policy making and research rather than their sex at birth. Gender based analysis is used in a range of areas, from income equality to health and education.’ This also echoes guidance from Engender, a feminist policy and advocacy organisation based in Scotland, which advocates for better quality gender-sensitive sex-disaggregated data.

The Stats NZ consultation is in response to inconsistent practices in the collection of data about sex and gender, ambiguity as to how respondents should answer questions about sex and gender, and the need for more inclusive practices, particularly for trans respondents and Māori and Pacific people (which have culturally specific identities related to sex and/or gender).

Applying a gender by default approach to data collection

To apply a ‘gender by default’ approach to data collection, Stats NZ outline a three-step guide for those looking to collect data about sex and/or gender (see the image below).

Stat NZ's three-step guide in determining if and  how to collect sex and gender data.

Firstly, and routinely overlooked, data collectors should ask whether they need to collect data about an individual’s sex and/or gender. Rather than assuming that ‘more data’ is always a good thing, data collectors should assess the potential benefits of collecting this data and ensure this outweighs any potential negatives.

Secondly, data collectors should ask if is it necessary to distinguish between transgender and cisgender respondents. If not, as is likely the case in most data collection exercises, the following question about gender is recommended:

Stat NZ's proposed default question on gender.

In data collection exercises where information about trans and cis populations is required (such as certain health care contexts), Stats NZ recommends a two-step question where a question about sex at birth is followed by a question about gender.

Thirdly, data collectors should ask if they need data about the intersex population (an umbrella term that describes people with a wide range of variations in sex characteristics). If so, this will not be collected by the previous two questions, and will therefore require an additional question that specifically asks if the respondent was born with a variation of sex characteristics.

The proposed question on gender, which would be asked in the vast majority of data collection exercises, is unambiguous in what it is asking and is a departure from use of the term ‘gender identity’. Furthermore, it addresses the perennial problem of the ‘other’ response option, which is an inappropriate way to ask people to describe how they identify. The use of the term ‘another gender’, with the provision of a write-in box, presents a model that other data collectors may wish to replicate.

Gender by default – the future for data collection?

No approach is ideal and, as people respond to the consultation, it is likely that Stats NZ will make further tweaks and changes. However, for those developing guidance on the collection of sex and gender data in other parts of the world, Stats NZ’s proposal articulates a clear vision that demystifies the substance of the question and is more inclusive for all respondents.

In Scotland, for example, the government’s Sex and Gender in Data Working Group is soon to publish its guidance on the collection of sex and gender data. Stats NZ also notes ongoing research into guidance on the collection of sex and gender data in Australia and Canada.

Those working on the design of sex and gender questions are at risk of losing sight of the research questions we actually wish to answer when we collect data about sex and gender. By bringing us back to the original research question and working outwards from there, New Zealand’s ‘gender by default’ proposal cuts-through the background noise and potentially provides an approach to data collection to roll-out across other national contexts.

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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