Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.
If you thought self-ID was off the table, now the Gender Recognition Act battle has been won, you’d better think again. Gender ideology has penetrated our institutions so deeply that, even without self-identification becoming a matter of law, the insidious idea that one’s sex is a solely matter of personal demand is seeping into policy and practice, almost unnoticed. Yet the damaging effects of this will be far-reaching, and one of the most worrying examples regards the case of the upcoming census.
Regular readers will know we believe that adults should be free to present themselves however they want (as long as this doesn’t harm others), and that such behaviour shouldn’t prevent anyone from being afforded equal respect. But this doesn’t equate to believing that the way someone presents themselves determines their biological sex — or that anyone should be mandated into accepting that to be the case!
Indeed, the activists pressing for such mandates endanger many people. We’ve charted the risks faced by vulnerable children, pressured into taking life-changing experimental drugs; the risks natal women face when forced to shared their single-sex spaces; and the risks we all face from attacks on societal commitment to truth.
National data collection is also under threat. And without trustworthy societal data, horrible problems go unnoticed, policy solutions go untested, and nobody is held to account. Sadly, one field that’s been heavily occupied by gender-identity activists is national statistics — in particular, they’ve targeted the censuses that are due to take place, soon.
The UK authorities in charge of censuses are the ONS in England and Wales, National Records of Scotland (NRS), and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). For the upcoming English, Welsh, and Northern Irish censuses in March 2021, and the Scottish census that’s been postponed to March 2022, they’ve confirmed that the wording of the compulsory-to-answer “sex question” will continue to offer only the standard answers “male” and “female”. Controversially, however, accompanying guidance will advise respondents to answer based on their self-declared gender identity.
This has raised serious concerns among social scientists and statisticians. In a letter to The Sunday Times, more than 80 academics noted that the guidance “will effectively transform the sex question into one about gender identity”, and highlighted their concern that “this will undermine data reliability on a key demographic variable”.
In an excellent Woman’s Place webinar on Sunday, one panellist summed up the situation: “How has this happened when everyone who knows about it, disagrees with it?”. Informed by the webinar, and our wider reading, including an important new paper by Dr Jane Clare Jones, here are some answers:
1) UCL’s Professor Alice Sullivan describes how the census has “collected data on sex since its inception in 1801. As a fundamental demographic variable, robust data on the number of male and female citizens is of vital importance to the planning and delivery of public services. Sex is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, therefore data on sex is clearly necessary for equalities monitoring”.
Yet, the aforementioned guidance will conflate the provable scientific concept of sex with the contested subjective concept of gender identity. This will make it unclear what’s being measured (violating the most basic principle of questionnaire design), and render the resulting data unreliable.
Now, it could be argued that the number of respondents who’ll answer the question with anything other than their biological sex will be very low, and that, therefore, this is relatively unimportant. But, aside from the principle of the matter, this neglects how most research using census data drills down deep, comparing findings relating to different variables and subgroups in different ways, making accuracy essential at all levels.
Of course the census covers sensitive matters, but regarding none of its other questions is it indicated that the respondent is not expected to give a truthful answer, but that they can instead choose to provide a response that makes them feel better, or that they wish were true.
UK census authorities have an obligation to maintain public trust in national statistical data. This poor guidance puts them in danger of losing their long-held ability to monitor differences between the sexes, and provide foundations for evidence-based policy.
2) Until recently, the census “sex question” was thought self-explanatory. In 2011, however, guidance was provided advising transsexual and transgender people to respond based on their self-declared gender identity. This wasn’t subject to consultation, but, according to the ONS, was done “at the request of the LGBT community”. This doesn’t mean, however, that self-identified sex should be accepted as a necessary feature of the census. Professor Sullivan describes how:
“it is not clear how data quality was affected [by the 2011 guidance], but it is likely that few respondents consulted the guidance. The shift to a “digital-first” census in 2021 means that any proposed guidance will be much more visible and accessible, compared to the 2011 census (which was predominantly paper based, with separate online guidance). It is also likely the number of respondents who might seek to answer the sex question in terms of their gender identity will be higher in 2021. Taken together, these factors introduce the potential for significant discontinuity with the 2011 and previous censuses”.
Moreover, the 2021 census (in England and Wales, and Scotland) is in further danger of undermining the pursuit of good data collection, with the introduction of a voluntary question specifically pertaining to gender identity. This means respondents will first be asked their sex (but told to answer on the basis of their gender identity), and then asked about their gender identity (by reference to sex!).
Given increasing interest in gender identity, especially among young people, and the lack of reliable data on the number of UK trans people, there’s value to this question. However, that’s only if gender identity can be understood separately from sex: conflating these terms helps nobody, not least trans people, who we’re regularly informed are at risk of missing out on screening for medical conditions relating to their natal sex. Yet, gender-identity activists continue to press this dangerous and confusing conflation.
3) The conflation of biological sex and gender identity — an astonishing failure of the census authorities — is but one example of the powerful institutional capture achieved by activists. Analysis by MBM tracks how the NSR was in regular and close correspondence with Stonewall. And much of the ONS’s output on the topic of the sex question betrays, through the use of tell-tale words and phrases, an uncritical absorption of post-modernist gender ideology.
4) It cannot be overstated how important the census is, not only to good public policy formation, but to good data collection and analysis, in general. A panellist on the Woman’s Place webinar referred to the census as “the mothership”. And anyone who’s ever done any research on any policy matter will be familiar with the use of census data; its methodological approach is, for everyone from academics to pollsters, a lodestar for survey design and so much more. Risking its standards, therefore, is tantamount to destroying a foundation post of our society.
5) The good news, however, is that it’s not too late — yet — to save the census! If you care about public policy, and believe that national statistics should be protected from gender ideology, then you’d better complain now. You’ve still got a small amount of time before the upcoming censuses to write to one or all of the following: the ONS, NRS, NISRA, your local MP, and the equalities minister, Liz Truss.