Stats New Zealand is holding a consultation which closes on 13 August on sex and gender identity and their collection in the census and across government. Surprisingly for such a large topic the proposed changes were not part of the 2019-2023 Statement of Strategic intent. The changes are proposals at this stage and may be changed based on the consultation.
The proposal is to change the data collection criteria for who is male or female from a standard based on sex (male or female) to one based on a gender identity (male, female or something else) i.e. from a system based on reality to one based on a belief or perception. It also proposes to stop the collection of sex data except where it is deemed essential. This is quite an extreme stance. It was only six years ago that the standard on gender identity was first developed. Six years later it is proposed that it replaces sex in most official statistics. Only a small proportion of the population thinks of themselves as having a gender identity. Everyone has a sex.
It is proposed that the use of gender identity will happen whenever sex data is not explicitly required. Stats NZ report that gender is “more relevant” than sex but do not say why. Sex will frequently be required in healthcare for example and will continue to be collected in the census. Moreover it is proposed that gender identity (ie commonly used by people who feel their birth sex does not match their feelings about who they are) will be renamed gender. This is confusing. Gender is a word with many existing meanings including as a synonym for the sexed meaning of who is a woman or man. It seems unlikely that most people think of gender in the way proposed to be adopted.
I think that the proposal is foolhardy when a reliable and stable data set – sex – already exists. The poor quality and confusion caused by this proposed method of data collection will impact everyone in New Zealand including, ironically, those who do believe in a gender identity.
During the consultation period I met the head of the team developing standards at Stats NZ. From this I learned that the basis for the calculation of pay equity data has been altered since 2018 (page 9 says “employees should be included as the gender they choose”) to include transgender women as women based on their self-identification. The recent reporting on the Public Service gender pay gap for 2019 has shown an unusually large improvement. It fell from 12.2% in 2018 to 10.5% in 2019 – the “:biggest drop ever recorded”. Whether or not the impacts of including people by gender are material, this change preceeded the consultation. StatsNZ, the State Services Commission and the Ministry for Women pre-empted the consultation despite pay data being one of the most important datasets for measuring equity issues between men and women. We will never know now, of course, but if a part of the recent improvement was due to male people identifying as women, does that really represent a success for women? We now have “50% public service senior managers who are women”. Or do we? No-one can really know.
The legal basis for the proposed change is also questionable. In early 2019 the government deferred the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill because it had not properly consulted on the Bill. Stats NZ’s proposed changes go against this by proposing to collect statistics on self-identified gender identity as if self-identification were enacted in law. Stats NZ, as well as other agencies – the Ministry of Social Development, Human Rights Commission, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ministry for Women and more appear to have continued to implement self-identification under the radar before and after the deferral of the Bill. The changes have been mostly covert but there is increasing evidence that they are happening. The legal implications and unintended consequences for women of doing this do not appear to have not been considered.
There is little information about how StatsNZ are mitigating risks to accuracy of data by replacing gender identity with sex and it appears that there is little post implementation research on the impacts of this approach in other jurisdictions that are being relied on as models to implement this model of data collection.
The consultation relies on Canadian and UK examples as best practice but both these countries are facing strong opposition and mounting problems arising from their decisions. In Canada the law does supports self-identified gender so the situation is different to NZ. However the impact assessment for the law change was never released. Legal cases are showing how unrealistic allowing men unfettered rights to self-identify as women has been. In the UK statisticians and social scientists have been forced to use the media to draw attention to a similar decision related to census data and opposition to the approach is growing.
There is particular concern that many people and organisations will be unwilling to make their views on this topic known in an environment hostile to women’s interests. Recently the Public Service Commission told public servants they should be using their pronouns in emails and announcing them in meetings `so that it “signals you as an LGBTQIA+ ally”. Meanwhile the Stats NZ advisory group for the sex and gender identity work is largely (if not entirely) composed entirely of people advocating for prioritising gender over sex. It is doubtful they will consider impacts to women or possible unintended consequences. The risk of an accusation of transphobia and its consequences is too high and has been enough to close down debate. J.K. Rowling, for example, has been attacked for months when she ventured to say that it is women who have periods. Rowling is wealthy but was attacked mercilessly in the media. Individuals who have supported her have been summarily sacked or forced to apologise. Speaking of the importance of the material reality of biology is sufficient to trigger an accusation of transphobia. Under these circumsances who will be willing to support retaining sex descriptors rather gender identity? It could appear foolhardy.
I’ve attached my full submission to the Stats NZ consultation process which develops out these and additional concerns more fully. Speak up for Women – the women’s rights group whose successful campaign against the Self-Identification legislation saw the bill deferred has added some additional analysis here