What sex are you?
This question has been asked in the national census every ten years since 1801. No guidance needed. It was assumed people understood this rather basic question, and easily picked from the two options, male or female, without any thought or difficulty.
You may remember filling in a paper copy of the census. This year for the first time most people will complete the census online. The ONS is estimating its on-line returns will reach 70% up from 16% in 2011. This means guidance on how to answer a question “What is your sex” will just be a click away.
Feminists, data experts and transactivists have been arguing about what the wording of that guidance should be. The guidance literally defines the meaning of the word ‘sex’ in the census so it really does matter. So, the Office for National Statistics did some ‘research’ in October 2020 to help them decide what guidance to give people on how to answer the sex question.
What do we know about this research?
The regulator, the Office for Statistics Regulation, told the ONS they “should share the outcomes of this research in a transparent and open way”.
They haven’t published or shared any of the details from this research. But, by piecing together what they’ve reported, provided to data users or to the media, already we can see a few problems with what they did.
It consisted of ‘in-depth interviews with trans people, traditional women’s groups and the general population’.
People were shown one “what is your sex?” question, with four different options for the guidance on how to answer it.
It’s not a representative study.
The 52 people were not selected at random, so they are not representative of the views of the wider population.
Some were selected via a ‘professional agency’. … a professional agency that is able to supply trans people for surveys.
The research sample was biased in favour of trans people.
Out of 52 people interviewed, 16 were trans people and another 7 were “trans allies”.
We also know that “these groups are not mutually exclusive so one participant may be in more than one of these groups”.
In other words “transwomen are women” so they can give their views on behalf of “trans people” and also “women”.
None of the many women’s groups who have been active in opposing self-ID were included.
The questions were loaded to give ONS their preferred outcome.
It wasn’t just the people they talked to in the research, it was how they talked to them. Three of the four guidance options were couched in direct, neutral terms. But we know one of the four options was soft and friendly, saying “It’s up to you how you answer this question.” This was the one asking about identity on legal/official documents. No wonder people liked it.
This type of bias breaks every rule in the book on how to perform ‘qualitative research’.
Which women’s groups did they talk to?
The ONS said that “14 women’s groups were represented”. Sounds good. So who were these women’s groups”? The ONS has so far named only four:
SWARM Collective, a sex workers’ group whose policy states ‘transwomen are women’.
Women’s Equality Party, which very publicly ejected a spokeswoman who questioned sex self-identification and puberty blockers for children in 2018.
Women’s league for peace and freedom, an international movement headquartered in Geneva which has had no involvement in this debate as far as we can tell, neither in the UK nor elsewhere.
MIND Women’s forum. Perhaps they mean this network at the mental health charity Mind. Also not involved.
They avoided women’s groups that might disagree.
ONS said the research would: “consider the reaction of the whole population to the guidance in the Census 2021 context, but particularly those with strong views on which of the options to take forward”.
Fair Play For Women has strong views. We told them so at a meeting in June 2020. They didn’t show us the options, or ask us for a view on which to take forward.
Woman’s Place UK has strong views. They were quoted in The Times back in 2017 discussing the sex question in the census. In 2020 they commissioned the publication of a report on the topic, called Sex and the Census. They hosted a webinar called Sex and the Census. They obtained and published legal advice on the matter. They weren’t asked either.
In fact, there are now over a dozen groups, all UK-based, concerned about the ONS decision. None of these groups are new (they’re all easier to find online than MIND Women’s Forum). Not one of these groups was asked.
Now these groups have launched a campaign website, #SexInTheCensus, to call attention to the problem of this self-ID guidance, and suggesting easy ways for people to register their disapproval with the ONS for messing around with the meaning of sex.
Plus, there’s our judicial review. If the ONS does not withdraw its dodgy guidance, they’ll have to listen to us in court. Our legal crowd funder has already raised over £42,000 in a matter of days. Please donate if you can.
It really would have been easier and cheaper all round if ONS had just listened to women in the first place.
This small, biased study was used to underpin their decision to redefine sex in the census.
This secret study revealed that asking trans people about what sex they were born could mean “some individuals would exert pressure on others to disrupt the census by discouraging completion”.
“The highest negative impact on accuracy and reliability is anticipated if sex registered at birth was collected due to the likely negative impact on response rates caused by the perceived invasion of privacy. The data need is not considered to be strong enough to justify collecting this.
The least impact is anticipated if sex as living / presenting is collected. However, the adjacent concept of sex recorded on legal/official documents is also anticipated to have low impact”
In other words trans people would be so upset with being confronted with factual question asking “what was your sex registered at birth” that transactivists would organise protests encouraging people to break the law and not to fill in the census. This clearly alarmed ONS who appear to be more worried about the trans backlash than getting good data.
This study was used to justify ONS redefining the meaning of sex in the census to include forms of self-identified gender, despite there being a separate question specifically for gender identity. Their guidance allows the use of ‘legal documents’ that can be changed with a single note from a doctor or just filling in a form.
Maintaining public trust in national statistics is vital.
The ONS’s approach to developing its guidance on the sex question is now under the spotlight, and it doesn’t look good.
Last minute U-turns, shoddy science and listening to lobby groups instead of data experts.
If the ONS don’t withdraw their unlawful guidance everything will be aired in the High Court for all to see.
Our Chief Statistician should be prioritising facts not feelings.
And the public needs to trust that our national statistics are free from interference by ideological pressure groups.