The Scottish Government’s Sex and Gender in Data Working Group: Early thoughts on draft guidance

The Scottish Government’s Sex and Gender in Data Working Group has published draft guidance on the collection, analysis and publication of data on sex and gender by Scottish public bodies.

The guidance describes underpinning statistical principles, definitions of concepts, things to consider before data collection and approaches to analysis, disaggregation and publication.

Of most note is the publication of three recommended questions for use when collecting data about an individual’s gender, sex and/or trans status or history. The guidance explains that the starting point for any organisation is to assess its reasons for collecting data and suggests that, in the majority of situations, the following question about gender will collect the information required:

How would you describe your gender?

  • Man/Boy
  • Woman/Girl
  • In another way (with open text field)
  • Prefer not to say

The guidance explains, ‘In a small number of instances, it may be necessary to record a person’s legal sex but this would be on an individual basis for a very specific purpose and it would be up to public bodies who need this data to develop the best approach to do this’. The guidance strongly notes, ‘Questions about a person’s biology should not be asked, except potentially where there is direct relevance to a person’s medical treatment’.

In limited situations where a question about legal sex will return the information required, the following question is recommended:

What is your sex?

  • Female
  • Male
  • Prefer not to say

Supporting guidance for this question notes that respondents should describe their ‘sex registered at birth, or acquired sex for those with a Gender Recognition Certificate’. The Working Group’s decision to propose a ‘legal sex’ question is potentially problematic and departs from the approach adopted in the equivalent question in Scotland’s 2022 census (which asks respondents to self-identify their sex).

For those engaged in work to address inequality, and based on evidence submitted to the Working Group by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the guidance notes ‘recording data on gender identity can support the equality monitoring and service development under the 2010 [Equality] Act’.

The guidance also explains, ‘for most groups of interest and issues one may want to measure, the inclusion of non-binary or trans people will not skew the statistics disaggregated by sex or gender’.

Finally, and in line with the question asked in Scotland’s 2022 census, the Working Group recommends asking the following question to differentiate cis and trans respondents:

Do you consider yourself to be trans, or have a trans history?

  • No
  • Yes (with open text field)
  • Prefer not to say

It is pleasing to see the Working Group recommend the use of a ‘trans question’ rather than the more convoluted question ‘Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?’ (used in the 2021 English and Welsh census) or a two-step approach used in other countries (where one question is asked about sex at birth and one question is asked about a person’s current gender). The Working Group’s proposal confirms Scotland’s position as a leading light in terms of approaches to the collection of data about cis and trans populations.

These are very early thoughts on the proposed guidance and I intend to provide a more detailed response in the coming months. The guidance is not perfect and there are some clear gaps (most notably non-binary identities). However, the Working Group’s clarification of reasons for collecting data about sex and gender, foregrounding of a question on gender and recommendation for a ‘trans question’ signal a promising start.

The Working Group is seeking feedback on their draft guidance until 12 February 2021. The guidance is available to download here.

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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