Post-Cass, promoting accurate data should never be seen as partisan

My government-commissioned review is seeking examples of barriers to research on sex and gender faced by UK-based individuals, says Alice Sullivan

April 29, 2024
A nurse with a clipboard taking a patient’s details
Source: iStock/PeopleImages

The importance of gathering accurate data on sex and gender identity has been brought into sharp focus by Hilary Cass’s recent Independent review of gender identity services for children and young people in the UK.

As has been widely reported, Cass’s report exposes the paucity of the evidence base in gender medicine, noting that “there has been a failure to reliably collect even the most basic data and information in a consistent and comprehensive manner; data have often not been shared or have been unavailable”. Cass also remarks on the increasing tendency since 2018 for referrals to Gender Identity Services (GIDS) not to record the sex of the patient. As she demonstrates, when evidence is lacking, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer most as a result.

The need for high-quality data and evidence extends beyond medical research. The loss of robust, standardised data on sex in the UK has raised concern among a range of stakeholders, including academics and policymakers. At the same time, there is evidence of wider barriers – at an institutional and societal level – to research and scholarly activity regarding sex and gender, making it difficult for open discussion to take place.

The secretary of state for science innovation and technology, Michelle Donelan, has commissioned me to conduct a review of data, statistics and research on sex and gender, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). We have launched a public call for evidence, which consists of two strands. The first invites both academics and members of the public to submit examples of data collection on sex and gender identity that they perceive to be inadequate or flawed.

Sex is a basic demographic variable. The UK Statistics Authority recommends that “sex, age and ethnic group should be routinely collected and reported in all administrative data and in-service process data, including statistics collected within health and care settings and by police, courts and prisons”. It also says data producers should clearly distinguish between concepts such as sex, gender and gender identity. The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has also developed guidance to help producers of official statistics think through how they collect and report data about sex and gender identity. We will build on this by delivering specific recommendations on how to collect the information that organisations and analysts need.

Alongside data on sex, some organisations are also keen to collect data on gender identity or trans status. Many expected to be able to adopt the question on gender identity that was developed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the 2021 England and Wales Census. That question – “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” – has now been shown to be flawed, leading to spurious results. This has left those responsible for data collection unsure of what they should be asking on this topic.

The second strand of the call for evidence seeks to understand the barriers to research on sex and gender experienced by UK-based individuals, including barriers to data collection. We are interested in all aspects of the research process and research climate, such as barriers affecting or operating via ethics committees, academic publishing, research funding, institutional policies, events and no-platforming, peer ostracism, chilling effects and self-censorship.

The review presents an opportunity to gain insights from the experiences of researchers who have not gone public with their stories. We are not interested only in the sorts of cases that occasionally generate headlines in the press, but also in examples that might seem relatively minor or mundane, but which have nevertheless affected the researcher and their research.

Cass reports that medical research on gender identity might have been adversely affected by a “toxic debate”. As sex is a basic variable across all the disciplines that take human beings as their subject, the effects of this toxicity might have wide effects. As sex and gender have become sensitive topics, this might have constrained the ability of researchers to investigate a plethora of research questions.

Our aim is to gather stories that provide insights into people’s experiences of facing barriers to research. We expect most respondents to this strand of the review to be UK university academics or students or researchers outside university settings. We welcome submissions from respondents with diverse views on the topic of sex and gender and hope to hear from as wide a range of voices as possible.

Promoting accurate data and an evidence-based understanding of the world should never be seen as a partisan matter. It is a great irony that scientists and social scientists who care about the pursuit of truth are sometimes accused of being “culture warriors”. The only way to move beyond the discourse of culture wars is to promote a culture of openness and truth-seeking.

Alice Sullivan is professor of sociology and head of research at the UCL Social Research Institute.

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Reader's comments (1)

Whilst sensible where gender/sex/trans status is actually germane to the study, there's a dreadful desire of people asking about this - as well as 'race' or age - where it is completely irrelevant. I long since have adopted the policy of refusing this information unless it is clearly relevant. It's not how I identify myself anyway and I don't care to be classified by attributes I didn't choose and find irrelevant.