Data on sex. Data on gender. A win-win for social policy?

Tony Hockley

Tony Hockley PhD

Senior Visiting Fellow, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics

Data on sex and gender – can the 2021 Census results spur a generalisation of inclusive policies? Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics’ Department of Social Policy writes exclusively for Chamber.

In a 2021 article, the sociologist and “Sex Matters” adviser Alice Sullivan told the story of how this lobby group, arguing that “gender is oppressive to women”[1] took the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to Judicial Review. The case related to the wording of optional guidance associated with the mandatory question on sex in the 2021 census. The ONS had proposed that the guidance should refer to the sex recorded on “one of your legal documents”, whereas the final guidance was more explicit, referring only to the birth certificate or gender recognition certificate”[2], thus hoping to exclude most of the transgender population.

Prior to this legal challenge, the ONS had noted that: “Sex is a key variable to ensure a genuine census record which, if not completed, could lead to a record being removed during processing”. Maximising the response rate to this question is always of high importance, whilst maintaining levels of accuracy. Of course, a binary question on sex will always have faced minor issues of definition due to the historic, but barely visible, presence of transgender and intersex people within society.

Due to the lack of questions on gender identity, the size of this minority has been unknown and public visibility has been rare until recently, save for some high-profile cases of gender reassignment surgery starting around 1900 to 1920[3]. NHS gender reassignment can be traced back to around the post-war creation of the NHS, and the later creation of the Gender Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in 1966[4]. However, surgical numbers give no insight into numbers in the wider gender diverse community.

Given its importance, the question on sex is the third question in the Census contained on the first page of individual questions. Rising visibility and awareness of transgender people within society, with particular health and social needs, meant that the 2021 Census would be the first to also collect data on gender identity, with a voluntary question included as question 27 on the fourth page. This forms part of a wider process of social change in which acceptance of diversity is growing, and in which this societal recognition influences the public policy agenda.

NHS Digital, for example, has taken steps to support NHS staff to gather data on gender identity, stressing its importance to better understand health inequalities and provide more personalised care.[5]

Data on sex and gender - can the 2021 Census results spur a generalisation of inclusive policies?
Since the 2021 Census, has anything changed? (Image: Stonewall)

The data stands up

As the deadline for the Census approached the ONS, unsurprisingly, dropped its defence on the sex question guidance. To do otherwise would have had significant repercussions for the census, over guidance for a single question. This is, of course, guidance that very few respondents would read as they began to complete the survey. The ONS noted: “Most respondents do not access the guidance, even within the trans community”[6]. The 2021 Census would be the first census that would be “digital first”, eliciting an 88.9% (22 million) online household response rate[7].

The supplementary guidance page to the online census was viewed 3,320 times by the time online data collection closed[8] (Including 2,730 since the sex question guidance was amended). It is impossible to know how many of these views were linked to completion of the census, rather than out of curiosity or due to multiple views out of the total of 3.3 billion census page views and 22 million household responses[9].

All that can be certain is that reference to the supplementary guidance to the sex question was well below 0.03% of respondents. Regardless of the fact that respondents did not feel any need for guidance to specify their own sex, the data collected in 2021 should be comparable in accuracy to the data in any Census since 1801[10], when this binary question was first asked.

In effect, nothing has changed.

The big change, however, was the inclusion of voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, for respondents aged 16 and over. The public response to these voluntary questions was surprisingly high. This gives good cause for confidence in the data. The insights that these data now offer will be of great value for the design of policy.

In total 44.9 million (92.5%) responded to the sexual orientation question[11] and 45.7 million (94%) the question on gender identity[12]. This level of positive engagement with these voluntary questions could be taken as be a promising sign of general public tolerance of these topics. The data revealed for the first time that there are 1.5 million LGB+ people in England and Wales, and 262,000 people whose gender identity differs from their sex registered at birth. We now know that there are equal numbers of trans-men and trans-women (48,000), representing 1/1000 in society (0.1%). In addition, 30,000 people identified as non-binary and 18,000 wrote in a different gender identity.

As a whole, therefore, this group amounts to 0.24% of the adult population. The number of Gender Recognition Certificates issued is considerably lower still (just 6,000 in 17 years[13]), given the onerous application process and the limited practical value unless getting married or dying.

Watch Curia’s 2022 LGBT+ Commission inquiry on hate crime, domestic abuse and sexual violence

The distribution of the LGBTQ+ population

What seems most important for policy is what the Census reveals about the distribution of the LGBTQ+ population. Outside of London, the percentage of trans women or trans men in the English population ranges only between 0.08% and 0.1%. Within London the highest densities are 0.28% trans men in Brent and 0.25% trans women in Barking and Dagenham. The Census also showed that people with a LGB+ sexual orientation are well represented across England and Wales. People who identified as Gay or Lesbian in the Census, for example, ranged from 1.21% and 1.56% of the population (2.23% in London). Interactive maps to study the data are available on the ONS website.

These data show that no local authority or agency is excluded from a responsibility to consider the LGBTQ+ minority in policy. Whilst there are obvious “honeypots” where these groups may feel some ‘safety in numbers’, notably in parts of London, Brighton & Hove, and Manchester, the policy challenge may be to eliminate the need for such places – at least on grounds of safety and inclusiveness. Whilst hate crime has grown, only one in five are able to access any support[14]. Discrimination remains pervasive, in employment, health and education.

Within the LGBTQ+ population transgender people are the least likely to engage in public and political life, through fear of abuse[15], which adversely affects public discourse on issues directly affecting them. Policy measures that facilitate an improvement in social attitudes to diversity are needed, alongside specific interventions on hate crime, bullying etc. The Census shows that this is ‘everyone’s business’. The policy challenge needs to be achieving improvements that benefit everyone, rather than seeking to trade rights between groups. Intelligent design[16] that improves safety, and perceptions of safety[17], for all need to be developed, improving general wellbeing alongside inclusivity. This would be a very practical use for the application of behavioural science in policy.

These Census results should spur a generalisation of inclusive policies. Without affecting data on sex, we now also have data on gender. More data will make for better policy.

Curia’s LGBT+ Commission

To read the full interim findings of the 2022 LGBT+ Commission, click here.


[1] FP4W “Our five guiding principles” Fair Play for Women webpage https://fairplayforwomen.com/about-us/our-beliefs/ Accessed 14 November 2022

[2] Topping A “Guidance on sex question in census must be changed, high court rules” The Guardian, 9 March 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/09/guidance-on-sex-question-in-uk-census-must-be-changed-high-court-rules Accessed online 14 November 2022

[3] DeLuca, L “Trailblazing transgender doctor saved countless lives” Scientific American, 10 June 2021 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trailblazing-transgender-doctor-saved-countless-lives/ Accessed 14 November 2022

[4] GIC “About us” webpage (undated) https://gic.nhs.uk/about-us/ Accessed 14 November 2022

[5] NHS Digital “Gender identity and why it is important to ask about” NHS Digital webpage, updated 4 November 2022 https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/data-collections-and-data-sets/data-sets/mental-health-services-data-set/submit-data/data-quality-of-protected-characteristics-and-other-vulnerable-groups/gender-identity#gender-identity-and-why-it-is-important-to-ask-about Accessed 14 November 2022

[6] Rociecka, H “Methodology for decision making on the 2021 Census sex question concept and associated guidance”, section 3.2 “Accuracy and reliability”, 10 February 2022 https://uksa.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/publication/methodology-for-decision-making-on-the-2021-census-sex-question-concept-and-associated-guidance/#_Toc63675994 Accessed 14 November 2022

[7] ONS “Delivering the Census 2021 digital service” Office for National Statistics, 4 October 2021 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/deliveringthecensus2021digitalservice/2021-10-04 Accessed 14 November 2022

[8] ONS “Quality and methodology information (QMI) for Census 2021” Office for National Statistics, last revised 2 November 2022 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/methodologies/qualityandmethodologyinformationqmiforcensus2021 Accessed 14 November 2022

[9] ONS “Delivering the Census 2021 digital service” Office for National Statistics, 4 October 2021 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/deliveringthecensus2021digitalservice/2021-10-04 Accessed 14 November 2022

[10] ONS “Guidance for questions on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation for the 2019 Census Rehearsal for the 2021 Census”, Office for National Statistics (undated) https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/censustransformationprogramme/questiondevelopment/genderidentity/guidanceforquestionsonsexgenderidentityandsexualorientationforthe2019censusrehearsalforthe2021census Accessed online 14 November 2022

[11] ONS “Sexual orientation, England and Wales: Census 2021. 6 January 2023 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/sexuality/bulletins/sexualorientationenglandandwales/census2021 Accessed 10 January 2023

[12] ONS “Gender identity, England and Wales: Census 2021. 6 January 2023 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/genderidentity/bulletins/genderidentityenglandandwales/census2021 Accessed 10 January 2023

[13] Government Equalities Office “Gender Recognition Certificate: applications and outcomes” 29 June 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/gender-recognition-certificate-applications-and-outcomes/gender-recognition-certificate-applications-and-outcomes Accessed online 10 January 2023

[14] Hubbard, L “Hate Crime Report 2021” https://galop.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Galop-Hate-Crime-Report-2021-1.pdf 2021. Downloaded 10 January 2023scholar

[15] Hudson-Sharp, N & Metcalf H “Inequality among gay bisexual and transgender groups in the UK: a review of the evidence” NIESR, July 2016 https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/47494007/160719_REPORT_LGBT_evidence_review_NIESR_FINALPDF_1-libre.pdf?1469433008=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DInequality_among_lesbian_gay_bisexual_an.pdf&Expires=1673364506&Signature=ACcPhyXqNIUMzX3fnn27eytprAaLS9VyOTyoWu-4otoXJhG7JgwpW9BGkLnID2lUCkW0IpPxCiIyQwpcCKFyzP42IJpif2jpCipED27hEan-vNaj4Qa~luFSBc1xRahYQKUEoymIhzw4ZBl0dJdnB~woSqGV51R63Kh70n526QJBj0Q75sKEa9qZ1P3dXyBAJx95lTr3egj0bp1-~~TkXIla-Ea1YI9vPEa5GGbmeVwfbYJ8M-W2SBbVxwiMVCIY08E1G6U0lC1nO2sg2g-Qtiwp-JpN~IH-Lv9OHtivWC0WVPgrcCN40VGGTIqniZudKoiJmOWp2Y7U9jnVPp1eYw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA Downloaded 10 January 2023

[16] Bovens L, Marcoci A “Gender-neutral restrooms require new (choice) architecture” (2018) Behavioural Public Policy blog https://bppblog.com/2018/04/17/gender-neutral-restrooms-require-new-choice-architecture/ Accessed online 10 January 2023

[17] Navarrete-Hernandez P, Vetro A, Concha P “On the design of everyday space: Closing the gender gap” 2021, Behavioural Public Policy blog. Accessed online 10 January 2023

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