Data Ethics Special Interest Group meeting report: What are the ethics of collecting data on sex and gender?

Data on sex has been collected for the UK census since 1801; from an ethical standpoint both providing a census return and answering sex question specifically are mandatory. The next census in some constituent parts of the UK could be asking questions on gender rather than sex. This represents a change in a well-established longitudinal data set, something that official statisticians are traditionally reluctant to do.

The Data Ethics Special Interest Section held an open workshop on this topic to hear different perspectives and to explore some of the ethical issues. Over 80 people attended an online meeting on 18 September 2020, chaired by Timandra Harkness.

Iain MacWhirter (journalist and commentator) provided an overview of the sometimes heated public debate around the issues underpinning the proposed data collection changes. Peter Whitehouse (Director of Statistical Services, National Records of Scotland) offered personal reflections as an official statistician. Alice Sullivan, Professor in the Social Research Institute at UCL illustrated a feminist understanding of the difference between sex, gender and gender identity. It is widely acknowledged that women in general have lower pay and do most domestic work. One explanation is that this is a gender role imposed on women because of their sex. Conversely, Ben Jordan (UCAS) explained that, having been informed that some students may be deterred from applying to University if they had to state their sex, they chose to collect data on self-declared gender. This has implications for university and field course accommodation as well as analysing progression.

The meeting made clear that people understand related terminology differently. Moreover, at present, sex and gender reassignment (not gender identity) are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Consequently, numerous social, policy and ethical challenges arise around data collection and interpretation. It also emerged that there is a wide range of stakeholders with interests in census data; not only the administrations that commission the census but also historians who will attempt to make sense of social development in the future. It would appear that there is a need for greater awareness of the various issues underpinning the collection of data on sex or gender or both.

Load more