The Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that trans staff may not feel “safe” in the workplace, after its methodology for counting transgender people in the census was questioned by the UK’s statistics regulator, as well as leading academics.
As reported in the Telegraph, senior leaders – all of whom are also on the ONS’s LGBTQ+ staff network – voiced concern about the “impact” on trans employees after it emerged that the census may have overestimated the number of trans people because of a poorly worded question.
An inquiry into the findings from the ONS census was launched after the collated data showed 262,000 people (or 0.5% of the population over 16) in England identify as trans.
Academics with expertise in quantitative social research immediately queried the finding, and warned that the wording of the relevant census question – “is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” – was problematic. Not only did it assume that everyone has a gender identity, but the wording may also have been confusing for respondents whose first language was not English.
Michael Biggs, a professor of sociology at the University of Oxford, described the results as “scarcely credible” and said that confusion over the meaning of the question may explain why the London boroughs of Newham (1.5%) and Brent (1.3%), which have a significant percentage of residents who speak English as a second language, recorded the highest proportion of transgender people in the UK.
When the ONS subsequently released customised data showing the tabulation of gender identity by proficiency in English, it became clear that those who speak English ‘not well’ or ‘not at all’ were most likely to be counted as transgender.
The controversy led to a review by the Office for Statistics Regulation, which in October said that the ONS should have done more to communicate “the inherent uncertainties” relating to the data.
A Whitehall source said it was clear that the figures “hugely overestimated” the number of transgender people – a view they suggested was shared by multiple ministers.
However, on November 8th last year, Jen Woolford, the ONS’s director of population statistics, hit back at the regulator, saying in a roundabout way that she felt there was no problem, and that the ONS continued to have “confidence in our gender identity estimates at a national level”.
Less than two weeks later, on November 22nd, Ms Woolford decided to write to ONS staff about the controversy over the data in her capacity as “sponsor” of the organisation’s “LGBTQ+ and Allies Network”.
The message was co-authored with the ONS’s deputy national statistician for health, population and methods, Emma Rourke, and Darren Morgan, its director of economic statistics production and analysis. Like Ms Woolford, both are sponsors of the LGBTQ+ and Allies Network.
The statement, titled “a message of support for colleagues in the LGBTQ+ community”, began by noting “recent media coverage of our statistics around sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Over the past few weeks,” the message continued, “we have been speaking with trans colleagues and those in the wider LGBTQ+ community about the impact this has had on their wellbeing.
“In light of this, we want to reaffirm our commitment to providing an inclusive workplace in ONS where everyone can feel safe and can bring their full self to work.”
The message went on to signpost employees to services if they had been “impacted” by the situation, before adding: “Please support colleagues during this time and recognise that we are all impacted by this situation in different ways.”
An ONS insider said that the message was wrongheaded. “Instead of accepting the legitimacy of the review, or indeed the right of scientists to talk about biological sex, the message appears to reframe it as an attack on the safety of trans people within the ONS,” they said.
A similar tactic was adopted last year by Lloyds Bank, when it offered free counselling to any of its 30,000 staff who had been psychologically ‘triggered’ by “the rhetoric coming from the Conservative Party conference, targeting the trans and non-binary community”. The conference saw figures like Kemi Badenoch, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman defend women’s sex-based rights, and criticise the way some trans activists were bullying people into agreeing with their views.
Michael Biggs, an Oxford University sociology professor who was one of the first to query the ONS transgender data, said: “It is troubling that the ONS has treated scrutiny of its data as a threat to its staff.”
He added: “A key question is whether ONS has been granting its ‘LGBTQ+ and Allies Network’ undue influence over the collection of data on sex and gender.”