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Sex And The Census

I couldn't help but wonder, should subjective feelings be given precedent over accurate, scientific data?

This week the National Records of Scotland announced that on the 2021 census the question “what sex are you” would only have the two options of “male” and “female” available with no third option. This may seem unremarkable but the so-called “sex question” for the Scottish 2021 census has been the subject of much heated debate.

The information gathered in a census is used to get a broad idea about the population of a country and plan services accordingly. For example, if a country has an older population then the government may decide to fund more services for over 50s. Or if a country has a large amount of women between the ages of 18-40 then more reproductive healthcare services will be needed in addition to nurseries and childcare support. Accurate data on sex is needed to allocate resources to sex-specific services such as cervical screenings or prostate exams. In addition to age and sex, other information gathered in a census may be: marital status, household composition, family characteristics, and household size. In the last Scottish census topics also included: education, ethnicity, identity, language and religion, and health.

The Scottish census has collected information about the Scottish population every 10 years since 1801 with the exception of 1941 when no census was taken due to the Second World War.

The next census in Scotland will be taken in 2021, and debate has centred on how the question about sex should be asked. Sex is considered to be a key demographic variable and the Scottish census seeks to record the number of men and women in Scotland. In the 2011 census the question “What is your sex?” had two options: Male and Female. Online guidance said that people who were transgender could select the option for how they identify, irrespective of the details on their birth certificate. Additional questions about gender identity were not included.

Campaigning groups such as The Equality Network have advocated for a third option on the sex question for the next Scottish census in 2021, ideally a write-in box where respondents could use the language they wish to describe themselves, to ensure that “non-binary people are also able to respond in a way that reflects how they live, rather than being limited to two options that do not accurately record this."

The Equality Network is listed as “a leading national charity working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality and human rights in Scotland,” after adding “Intersex equality” to their remit in 2014 alongside Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans rights.

The Office for National Statistics has rejected the formula proposed by The Equality Network for the next census for England and Wales, which will maintain a binary male/female answer but with a voluntary question on gender identity for respondents over 16 years old.

Some policy analysts and data experts expressed their concern that proposals such as those put forward by The Equality Network would compromise the integrity of the census data gathered for the Scottish census. Reliability of census data is key when developing policies and allocating public services. As reported in the Guardian, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a member of the policy analyst collective Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, said: “Our concern is that this will make census data less reliable and less easy to understand. You are taking a risk with the usefulness of the data when you bring in an unknown, because you don’t know how many people are telling you their legal sex and how many something else. It is making the data harder to interpret because it is conflating two different ideas into one data set.”

Other experts warned that if the proposed changes to the sex question went ahead, the 2021 Scottish census could risk using an interpretation of “sex” that is different to the definition in current law and designated as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. Sex and gender identity would become conflated which could jeopardise accurate planning for public services.

Experts and advocates from The Equality Network, ForWomen Scotland and other groups gave evidence to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee in December 2018. Confusingly, Ross Greer MSP suggested that a third category in the sex question would be useful to intersex people, however, many intersex advocacy organisations have repeatedly said that they object to being lumped under the “trans” umbrella. Intersex conditions are medical conditions, and concern development of sexual characteristics.

In February 2019, after hearing arguments and evidence, the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee published a report recommending that the sex question in the census retains the binary options of male or female. The report also stated: The Committee considers that the lack of early engagement with a range of groups and individuals, including a broad range of women’s groups, to be a serious deficiency in the process of consultation on the sex, gender identity and transgender status.

Many women’s groups had raised concerns that conflating gender identity and sex would lead to inaccurate data being gathered which would affect planning for public services for women, further reinforcing the idea that womanhood is merely an identity to be claimed by anyone and not a biological reality. Members of Scottish Parliament such as Joan McAlpine, who chaired the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee considering the sex question, have been harassed and threatened for acknowledging that accurate data is needed in the 2021 census.

On 7th August 2019, Prof Rosa Freedman, who gave evidence to the committee, tweeted that the National Records of Scotland propose to continue with a binary sex question, and this news was welcomed by many women’s groups who had been concerned over the danger of census data conflating subjective identity with objective biological sex, which could adversely affect planning for women’s services.

An additional, optional question asking respondents about their “trans status” or “gender identity” is still under consideration.

Sobering Maid

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