Women count, count women: WPUK & the Census

The subject of the webinar we are hosting tomorrow, Sunday 18th October, is also that of our first action: accurate recording of sex in the census.

Selina Todd will be chairing the discussion between Alice Sullivan, Lisa MacKenzie and Jane Clare Jones. You can find out more about the event, and register, here.

WPUK Petition

Three years ago, in October 2017, we initiated a UK Government petition to ‘Keep the category of sex a mandatory question in the 2021 Census.’

This was the text from the petition:

“Keep the category of sex a mandatory question in the 2021 Census.

We oppose the published tentative recommendation by the Office of National Statistics to make sex a non-mandatory field in the 2021 Census. We demand that sex remains a mandatory question in the Census and is included in all government demographic data collection in accordance with SDG5 commitments.

More details

Data collection disaggregated by sex gives us vital information for policy making and distribution of resources. If implemented, the ONS recommendation will make widely acceptable that sex becomes a voluntary question. This will render useless equal opportunities monitoring designed to combat sex discrimination. It will influence governments worldwide making difficult the monitoring of imbalances resulting from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and unequal treatment of girls and women.”

This was in the very early days of our campaign and, although we did not reach the necessary 10,000 signatures to force a government response, we did raise awareness of the issues and many of our early supporters took up the cause.

In between there have been a range of actions and submissions, and also rising alarm from academics and relevant professionals.

The story was initially picked up by The Times and included a quote one of our co-founders, Judith Green:

“Thanks to the last census we know that women make up 51 per cent of the population of the UK, but this might be the last time we can say that with any certainty. We’ve got such a long way to go before we can say we don’t need to know the sex difference in the population.”

It was clear from the Times article that many others agreed with our concerns:

Professor Jonathan Portes, Professor of economics & public policy, Kings College:

“Mr Portes, former chief economist at the Department for Work and Pensions, said the move would make it much more difficult to track and tackle issues such as the gender pay gap and inequality in childcare, social care, housing and health.

“It’s difficult to think of a public policy area where that data is not relevant.”

Sir Michael Marmot, global authority on health inequality:

“Certainly, it is of scientific and public health interest to know what is happening to men and to women and to gender differences. For example, when we look across Latin America, we see that the female disadvantage in education has been reduced but women still earn much less than men. I appreciate the difficulty of getting a good question on transgender, but we do need to keep getting numbers on males and females.”

Professor Danny Dorling:

“Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, said the reason data was collected by sex was “rarely about biology” but rather to understand how men and women were disproportionately affected by social, economic and political change. “We would be unable to calculate the most basic of social statistics — life expectancy,” he said.”


“If the Scottish Government believes that human beings are not sexually dimorphic, then the chief scientific and medical officers must provide evidence to support that claim’.

In November 2018 WPUK submitted evidence on the Scottish Government’s census bill

We were very clear:

“In order to maintain sex-based protections, there must be a clear definition of ‘sex’. Therefore, the way in which the question on sex is presented in the 2021 Census is vitally important.”

You can read all the submissions made to the Scottish Census consultation here.

In another Times article on 9th December 2018, WPUK was quoted again:

“If the Scottish Government believes that human beings are not sexually dimorphic, then the chief scientific and medical officers must provide evidence to support that claim’. 

In May 2019 WPUK made our submission to the UK Statistics Authority:

“We are therefore clear that the 2021 Census must retain a binary sex question based on a clear definition of sex, not least so that public bodies can fulfil their obligations as part of the Public Sector Equality Duty. We remain concerned that guidance which accompanied the 2011 Census was introduced without due consideration of the potential impact on the quality and trustworthiness of data collected under the sex question. We are of the view that this guidance should be removed for the 2021 Census.”

On 16th July 2019, we also made a submission to the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry on the use of data and raised our concerns about the 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.”

On December 15 2019, 80 of the UK’s leading social scientists wrote an open letter which was published in the Times:

“As social statisticians, quantitative social scientists and epidemiologists, we are concerned about the proposed online guidance to accompany the sex question in the 2021 census, which advises respondents that they may respond in terms of their self-identified gender.

“This will effectively transform the sex question into one about gender identity. We are concerned that this will undermine data reliability on a key demographic variable and damage our ability to capture and remedy sex-based discrimination and inequality.

“We welcome the decision to include a voluntary question on gender identity in the 2021 census in England, Wales and Scotland. Sex and gender identity are distinct and should not be conflated.”

In another article in the Telegraph on 15th September 2019,  Dr Julie Maxwell, an NHS paediatrician raised concerns about the implications for funding:

“Almost every kind of illness behaves differently in men and women,” she told the Mail on Sunday.

“If the national statistics are skewed in this way so you don’t know how many biological men or women there are, and if you add on to that the fact people are already changing their sex on medical records, you lose any meaningful knowledge of how often health problems are happening in men and women.

“And my biggest fear for children is they are not going to get appropriate health services allocated for their needs because of messing around with statistics.”

ONS recommendations

In June 2020, The ONS published this report on the development of questions on sex and gender identity. We were pleased to see that the ONS agreed that the sex question was vital and should remain mandatory.

This is the recommended question on sex:

What is your sex?

A question about gender identity will follow later on in the questionnaire

[ ] Female

[ ] Male

 This is the recommended question on gender identity:

Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?

This question is voluntary

[ ] Yes

[ ] No

[Enter gender identity]

The gender identity question is voluntary. It will only be asked to respondents aged 16 years and over.

Proposed guidance

However, the proposed accompanying guidance will result in the UK census authorities jeopardising their ability to collect robust, high quality sex-disaggregated data in the forthcoming UK census.

The proposed draft guidance currently states:

“The sex question on the census will be mandatory, so will need to be answered by all. However, for those whose gender is different from their sex registered at birth, who may find the question difficult to answer, the answer they provide does not need to be the same as their birth certificate.

“If you are one or more of non-binary, transgender, have variations of sex characteristics, sometimes also known as intersex, the answer you give can be different from what is on your birth certificate.

If you’re not sure how to answer, use the sex registered on your official documents, such as passport or driving licence, or whichever answer best describes your sex.” (our emphases).”

We are alarmed that, whilst purporting to understand the importance of the sex question, ONS is simultaneously proposing to guide respondents to answer in line with their self-declared gender identity, not their sex.

We are therefore delighted to be hosting the Sex and the Census webinar on this issue with experts from the field to talk about why, and how, we must challenge these proposals.

17th October 2020

Some related links

MBM statement on Scotland’s 2021 census Murray Blackburn Mackenzie 9th September 2019

Sex and the census: why surveys should not conflate sex and gender identity Professor Alice Sullivan March 2020

Back under the radar: a review of plans for the census Murray Blackburn Mackenzie 24th September 2020





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.