My peer-reviewed article ‘Constructing a queer population? Asking about sexual orientation in Scotland’s 2022 census’ is to be published in the Journal of Gender Studies.
The article is the first to discuss the design process for a question on sexual orientation in a national census. Using correspondence between National Records of Scotland, the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee and campaign groups, I explore decisions made, the uneasy relationship between queer identities and state data collection practices, and ask the question who is counted when we count LGBTQ people.
I conclude that the census design process constructed a queer population that ‘made sense’ to the heteronormative majority and ‘designed-out’ queer lives that the state did not wish to bring into being.
Although focused on the design process in Scotland, the article presents insights ahead of censuses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in March 2021 that (for the first time) will ask a question about sexual orientation.
Huge thanks to everyone who provided input to draft versions of the article and journal reviewers for their constructive feedback.
The Scottish Government’s Sex and Gender in Data Working Group has published draft guidance on the collection, analysis and publication of data on sex and gender by Scottish public bodies.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?
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?
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?
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.
In February 2020 the Scottish Government confirmed Scotland’s next census will advise respondents to answer the question in line with their ‘lived sex’.
However, in England and Wales, which is conducting a census in 2021, debate continues about the form of guidance that will accompany the sex question. This has presented opportunities for several myths to spread about the design and purpose of censuses in the UK.
This updated guide (previously published in January 2020) addresses these confusions head-on and provides seven helpful explainers that cover the use of census data, the alignment of the census with the 2010 Equality Act, international practice, guidance provided in previous censuses and what is meant by self-identification.
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).
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:
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.