Use of data: WPUK submission to Public Accounts Committee

This is the text of the submission by WPUK to the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into Challenges in using data across Government published on 16th July 2019.

About us

Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) is a grassroots feminist campaign which was formed by a group of women in the labour and trade union movement to uphold women’s sex-based rights and protections in the UK. Since September 2017, we have held 22 public meetings across the UK which have been attended  by over 3,500 people.

We are concerned that government and public authorities are increasingly shifting their focus to capturing data on ‘gender identity’ rather than sex. We believe that this shift, left unchecked, will have grave consequences for women’s sex-based rights as enshrined, primarily, in the Equality Act 2010.

2021 Census

WPUK believes that rigorous collection and analysis of sex-disaggregated data and high-quality research must be central to the development of any services, policies or actions which address women’s needs or which challenge discrimination and inequality faced by women on the ground of their sex. For this reason, data on sex collected in the census is vitally important.

We submitted evidence[1] during Stage 1 of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in June. In our submission, we expressed concern about the conflation of the distinct concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’ both in relation to the wording of the Bill as introduced, but also in relation to the questions being developed for the 2021 Census in Scotland.

The UK census authorities are still developing the questions they will ask in the 2021 Census. WPUK is concerned that the census authorities are considering changing the way in which the sex question is posed, so that it becomes a question about gender identity, not sex.

Whilst proposing the retention of a binary (male/female) sex question, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is proposing guidance for the sex question which encourages individuals to respond based on their self-identified gender, including those not in possession of a Gender Recognition Certificate.

We understand that the National Records of Scotland are planning to test three different versions of the sex question: a non-binary sex question (with three response options); a binary sex question, with accompanying guidance to answer on the basis of self-identification; and a binary sex question with accompanying guidance to answer on the basis of a person’s current birth certificate (which would amount to ‘legal sex’).

In our submission on the Scottish Census Bill, we also highlighted our concern that guidance accompanying the 2011 Census advised individuals who consider themselves to be transsexual or transgender to respond to the sex question based on their self-identified gender – not their biological or legal sex.

Documentation[2] relating to the development of the 2011 Census reveals that this guidance was introduced on the basis of flawed advice provided by an independent consultancy. No equality impact assessment on the sex question was carried out, as it was regarded as “a disproportionate use of resources”.

The consultancy advised ONS to issue guidance to trans people (“including those who do not have a Gender Recognition Certificate”), instructing them to respond to the sex question based on their self-identified gender.

It is therefore unknowable how many individuals read and heeded this advice and what impact that had on the quality of the data on sex captured by the 2011 Census.

Gender pay gap data

In February 2019, the UK Government Equalities Office (GEO) and Acas issued joint guidance[3] to employers on how to report on their gender pay gap (GPG). The guidance instructs employers to gather data based on their employees’ ‘self-identified gender’ not their sex. WPUK wrote[4] to Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt MP in April 2019, asking her to review this guidance.

It has since emerged that neither the GEO[5] nor Acas[6] made any assessment of the impact of this guidance on the quality of the data and how it might impact on our ability to measure the scale of discrimination against women. For instance, as highlighted in Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women, the tech industry is heavily dominated by men. In industries where such stark disproportionalities exist, the GPG data could be easily skewed by just a small number of transwomen who are recorded as ‘female’.

We are aware of other datasets which have shifted to recording ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘sex’ and would be happy to send the Committee other examples.

Woman’s Place UK

July 2019








We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.