Flawed census question leads to inaccurate data on gender identity

Flawed census question leads to inaccurate data on gender identity

Image of UK census

A new article published in the journal Sociology argues that data on gender identity from the 2021 Census of England and Wales is implausible with regard to geography, language, education, ethnicity, and religion.

The paper, by Dr Michael Biggs, suggests that these results were produced by a flawed question. 

The 2021 Census of England and Wales was one of the first in the world to attempt to ascertain the gender identity of an entire population. But Dr Biggs argues that the census question confused a substantial number of respondents, who erroneously declared their gender identity to differ from their natal sex. 

The census, ran by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), asked, ‘Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?’ Respondents could answer either ‘yes’, or ‘no’ with the option to write in their gender identity.

Of residents aged 16 years and over, 0.54% (or 262,000 people) answered in the negative, which the ONS presented as ‘the first official data on the size of the transgender population’.

However, Dr Biggs argues that this figure is inaccurate – the wording of the question caused some respondents to answer incorrectly. 

To support his case, Dr Biggs uses other data from the same census, as well as information on referrals to gender clinics and signatures on a pro-transgender petition.

For example, according to the 2021 census, the local authority with the highest proportion of the adults whose gender identity was different from their sex at birth was Newham in London. On the other hand, Brighton and Hove – ‘the LGBTQ+ capital of the UK’ – ranked only 20th in the country.

Dr Biggs suggests these results are inaccurate, stating referrals to the Gender Identity Development Services for under 18s seeking medical treatment for gender dysphoria. The number of referrals in Brighton and Hove was almost six times higher than the rate in Newham. 

Similarly, a petition to allow transgender people to self-identify without the need for a medical diagnosis was signed by 118,000 people across England and Wales. The proportion of people signing the petition in Brighton and Hove was four times higher than the proportion signing in Newham. 

Furthermore, there was a strong correlation between those who seemingly identified as having a different gender identity in the census, and those whose first language was not English.

The census data suggests that only 0.4% of those who spoke English as their main language were transgender, compared with 2.2% of those did not speak English well. 

Dr Biggs states that:

The only plausible explanation is that many immigrants with lower English proficiency were understandably confused by the gender question and mistakenly answered in the negative.

Most of them did not write in any identity, and so were categorised as unspecified gender; some of them wrote in their sex and were categorised as trans men or trans women.

Those who did not speak English well were 10 times more likely to fall into the category of ‘unspecified gender’, than those who spoke English as their main language.

Only 10% of all adults did not speak English as their main language, but according to the census they contributed 29% of the total number of transgender adults.

The article also suggests that the gender identity question may have been confusing to individuals who lacked familiarity with the concept. Adults with no formal qualification were three times as likely to be categorised under ‘unspecified gender’ as university graduates.

The paper also notes that data on religion and ethnicity is worth scrutinising. According to the census, 61% of trans people were religious. Muslims were almost three times more likely to be transgender than people adhering to no religion.

Additionally, census results suggest 1.6% of black adults were transgender and 1% of Asian adults – but only 0.4% of white adults. 

These ethnic and religious disparities are the reverse of those found in referrals to gender clinics. In referrals from 2016 to 2021, white children and adolescents were overrepresented compared with the population of the same age. 

Data on adult gender services in England in 2016 also showed a lower proportion of black and minority ethnic patients than in the population. For adults and children alike, the large majority of those attending gender clinics had no religion.

Dr Biggs argues that these findings demonstrate how a faulty question can distort understanding of the social world.

The paper concludes by noting that this particular question will continue to be used in other national surveys across England and Wales, meaning errors resulting from the wording may ramify for years to come.

In response to the research presented in this article, the Office for Statistics Regulation is carrying out an investigation into these statistics and their report is expected later in the year.