Guidance on data collection of sex and gender is published by Sex Matters

When I read in 2018/9 that the ONS was going to change the 2021 Census question on sex to mean gender identity, a highly contested concept not widely understood by the population, I was alarmed. As a social scientist and the designer of many surveys I knew that was a massive mistake and I started to investigate how on earth two key tenets of good longitudinal data collection, clarity and consistency of question could so easily be ignored for the Census, the gold standard of surveys. Political lobbying was the answer I found, but luckily for public records, historians, medical and social researchers and policy makers an intervention by a small unfunded organisation FairPlay For Women resulted in a judicial review. The ONS backtracked and retained the original question on sex whilst adding a further question on gender identity -although the wording of this question is now being reconsidered after the census results showed that it may have been poorly understood.

A few weeks ago it was announced that Professor Alice Sullivan (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society) is heading up a six-month review analysing the collection of research and statistics by all public bodies on sex and gender, with specific recommendations to be made at the end. This will make a fascinating read. And last week the organisation Sex Matters got the show on the road with its own guidance on data collection of sex and transgender identity. You can download it here.

Over the past five years or so many organisations have already decided to replace the question of sex with other wordings and continue to do so, often in the name of inclusivity, diminishing the reliability of their data.The Sex Matters team found that many organisations, instead ask for “gender” (or gender identity) and some offer a bewildering array of options, including non-binary (which is not a sex or recognised legal term) agender, man-identified, gender queer and others.

Instead, says Sex Matters, when asking about sex keep it simple! Simply use Male or Female (plus optional prefer not to say). When designing a question, the place to start is to ask what the information is for. Organisations may need to record information about people’s sex for many reasons, including:.

  • because it is required by law – for example, schools must record pupils’ sex 
  • for healthcare and medical records –for correct diagnosis, screening, analysis of test results, treatments, dosages and so on 
  • for operational reasons – for example, where a person’s sex is relevant to their job (such as a bra fitter or women’s refuge worker) or where there are sex-based rules about who can access a particular service 
  • for processing salaries, tax and pensions
  • for sports – to decide on eligibility for competitions and to assess and record athletic performance 
  • for safeguarding – where an organisation places staff in positions of care towards children and vulnerable people 
  • for social statistics – for example, recording and analysing economic data by sex 
  • for equality monitoring – for example, to avoid sex discrimination in recruitment processes or to monitor workforces in order to spot patterns of discrimination (and pay inequality)
  • in order to prevent, investigate or prosecute crime. 

In almost every situation, if you want to know a person’s sex, what you want to know about is their actual sex (apart from for tax and pension records, which are linked to sex as modified by a gender-recognition certificate).   Collection of data on sex has never been considered to be sensitive information but organisations can always include a ‘prefer not say’ as well as male or female.

If you want to know whether people have a transgender identity, you should ask this separately from the sex question. This should be asked with caution and responding should be voluntary as this is sensitive information. The guidance makes it clear that:

 “you should ask about this only if you have a good reason and have considered the privacy implications of collecting the data. It should not be collected routinely. Some potential reasons for asking people about transgender identity are: 

  • operational – to identify transgender people as a population with specific needs 
  • for social statistics – because you want to know how many people identify as trans in a particular population 
  • for equality monitoring – “gender reassignment” is a protected characteristic and you may choose to monitor it (although you should consider whether this is possible in practice. The numbers being very small and the inability to publish the biological sex of those who have a GRC makes this a difficult process). 

“Appearing inclusive” or “Wanting respondents to feel seen” are not good enough reasons to collect this data. Data-protection principles require that there is a lawful basis for collection, and that the information is used only for purposes that have been identified in advance.