Stats NZ is asking for submissions on their proposed changes to the standards for collecting and using data about sex and gender (submissions close 5pm on Thurs).
The proposed changes appear to be twofold in intention: to make this research and governance part of society more inclusive to transgender people, and to have a set of consistent standards on collecting and managing general sex and gender data for the government, academics, NGOs and others. Because it will be used so broadly it’s an important set of standards, even more so given the shifting nature of social and political understanding of gender and sex and the large degree of social and political conflict over this internationally.
I spent some time last night reading through the documentation and to be honest it reads like it was written for civil servants and people working in the sector. Hard for a lay person to get their head around, even myself who has been following the various debates on gender. My concerns here are that the proposed changes may have implications for society more broadly than the needs of transgender people, and that women in particular will be largely unaware of what is happening and thus not involved in the consultation.
I was left with questions and unease.
Much of the document looks at questions aimed at gathering better data on transgender people. This seems well thought through and appropriate, and responsive to the parts of the community this most affects.
However there is also the intention to replace general sex data with gender data as the default unless sex data is specifically needed,
We propose that the ‘gender by default’ principle is adopted in an updated standard. This is an approach that defaults to the collection of gender data as opposed to sex at birth. Defaulting to a specified variable facilitates consistency of data collection. Collection of sex at birth information should be viewed as an exception where there is a specific need.
In most cases a person’s gender – their social and personal identity – is most relevant for policy making and research rather than their sex at birth. Gender based analysis is used in a range of areas, from income equality to health and education.
One of the big gaps in this document is the claim that sex data is not usually needed but not explaining why, or when sex data would be needed. This is not conducive to good consultation. It seems obvious that a lot of health research would need biological sex data, but what about things like domestic violence? For example, if sex data isn’t collected, does this mean that anyone identifying as woman will be included as a woman in the statistics on gendered violence (both victims and perpetrators)?
I’ll note three things there about this flow chart. One is the use of ‘female/male’ for both sex and gender (thus confusing biological sex and gender). The second is they don’t give a reference for when/how to answer one of the questions at step two: when should we collect sex data? The third is that some people don’t consider themselves to have a ‘social and personal identity’ based in gender, they experience themselves as a sex. How will meaningful data be collected about them?
I’m going to speak to the semantics of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ shortly, but if you are starting to feel confused about the language, don’t worry, everyone is.
The care and concern demonstrated for trans people individually and as a class throughout the documents is evident and to be applauded. What I don’t understand is why this isn’t also being seen as an issue for women. If the intention is to largely replace sex data with gender data, then why have women not been consulted in this given sex is central to a wide range of experiences of being biologically female in NZ society?
In their process of developing changes to the standards, Stats NZ convened an external expert advisory group in 2019 to assist with aspects of the review. There were no women’s groups represented.
From the terms of reference,
Data collection which reflects the diversity of the population in terms of sex and gender identity is limited and inconsistent across the system – not only in New Zealand, but internationally.
There’s an obvious need to focus on LGBTQI+ interests, but making changes to sex data inherently affects women as a class. It’s hard to see how lessening understanding of sex improves the reflecting of diversity of the population. Even more so when we consider that society has often considered male to be the default sex and this has impacted negatively on women.
Both transgender people and women have specific vulnerabilities related to their classes and the ways in which society treats them. My own opinion is that each class has distinct needs, and that there are some areas where those needs are currently in conflict politically. In that context, choosing to make statistical information based in gender to the exclusion of sex is a highly political act.
There is a massive and very fast cultural shift happening in Western societies around gender and sex, and in some places it’s no longer possible for academics or government workers to present counter ideas without putting their jobs and careers at risk. It’s unclear to me if this is an issue in New Zealand, and if this has been a factor in this process.
With regard to the semantics. When I was trying to get my head around gender self-ID law reform in NZ a few years ago, it appeared that NZ legislation and policy generally had muddled and overlapping uses of the words sex and gender, which made it hard to make sense of the debate. This is true of wider society, think about the meaning of biological sex and the concept of changing one’s sex.
This is even more so in the various debates happening around the new gender wars, where transactivists and gender critical feminists have both weaponised semantics and use this to talk past each other. eg GCFs use the term ‘man’ to mean biologically male, TAs use ‘man’ to mean a gender identity. Both sides know it and insist on ignoring the other’s definition.
More broadly society has a history of colloquially using sex and gender interchangeably, but now gender has new meanings and there is a push to redefine sex away from its biological meaning. Thus various groups, including Stats NZ, talk about female and male gender, at the same time as conflating this with female and male sex, at the same time as lessening the importance of sex as a way of understanding women’s reality. This has alarmed and pissed off an increasing number of women who believe we have a right to determine the language and concepts used to describe our own class experience and politics.
Stats NZ do include definitions in the document of what they mean by sex, gender, male, female, but I’m not convinced those definitions are widely and consistently shared by New Zealanders, and I wonder what happens when people fill in census or survey forms and use the words in their own way.
This was not an easy post to write for a number of reasons. I have tried to focus here on the issues for women but feel constrained in my ability to do so because of the complexity of the underlying issues (and explaining them to people who are currently outside the debate), and because there is a shit storm of epic proportions raging out there around those issues in parts of society that the rest of society is either largely ignoring or actively trying to suppress the debate about.
Trans people obviously need a lot more support from society across a range of areas and it’s good to see Stats NZ attempting to do this. Other than general support for this I don’t want to comment on the issues for trans people as I feel they are speaking for themselves elsewhere (likewise I’ve not talked about intersex people, which the review also covers).
The biggest thing that stands out for me right now is that society desperately needs to have a wide ranging and comprehensive conversation about sex and gender and what these mean not only semantically but more importantly in terms of human knowledge, experience and politics. And that conversations needs to be free from the acrimony that characterises the current wars around gender and sex.
If you want to join the discussion below, please be mindful of not bringing that shitstorm or acrimony here i.e. make an attempt to be kind, respectful, or thoughtful in your comments. The usual policies around robust debate and not using language or tone that has the effect of excluding others stands.
If you want to make a submission, there is a form just down this page.