Sex and/or gender — working together to get the question right

July 5, 2018 by 6 Comments | Category Content Design, Scottish Approach to Service Design

This is a blog post by Jane Reid, Lead User Researcher at Disclosure Scotland.

When someone applies for a government service, government organisations must only ask questions that are essential.

Government organisations also have to make sure the citizen:

  • understands the question
  • can answer it appropriately
  • feels respected

When Disclosure Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, was testing their services with users, they found there was more to asking someone’s sex or gender than they realised. They found that the way they were asking the question did not meet the needs of users, and this was an issue other organisations were also having.

So Disclosure Scotland, and the Scottish Government’s Office of the Chief Designer, formed a working group to try to find out when, and how, government organisations should ask about sex or gender.

This is a summary of the group’s initial findings, and a first step towards tackling a complex area, to make services fairer and more inclusive for the people of Scotland. It makes a number of recommendations on next steps, including that the Scottish Government should work towards defining an evidence-based pattern acceptable for use across government.


Disclosure Scotland is transforming existing services, moving from a predominately paper service to online. We’re taking an evidence-based approach to designing and building new and improved, end-to-end, inclusive services.

One of the goals as a user researcher in this process is to help teams make evidence-based decisions. A big part of this is working closely with content designers to ensure content is written with a full understanding of the context of our users.

An evidence-based approach is essential to:

  • improve the service for the user
  • ensure the consistency of user experience in UK Government and government in each of the devolved nations
  • create efficiencies
  • save time and resources
  • reduce the chance of reputational damage
  • meet the digital service standards

Local issues

During early discovery research, it became clear that the way in which both Disclosure Scotland and the UK Government ask about sex and/or gender didn’t meet the needs of our trans and non-binary users.

Disclosure Scotland currently asks one question on gender (rather than sex), offering two options – male or female. Early user research and stakeholder engagement flagged up an issue with this. As one participant said, “My granddaughter wouldn’t exist in your eyes, the way that question is worded.”

Disclosure Scotland also spoke to trans and non-binary support groups who said the guidance in the Government Service Manual at that time [the meeting took place on 20 March 2018, in Edinburgh] – which offered three options: ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘unspecified’ – was not meeting their needs. One trans and non-binary support group said the third option ‘unspecified’ was “blunt and offensive”.

Exploring the problem

It was at this point we (user research and content specialists from Disclosure Scotland) realised that the problem to be solved was not limited to Disclosure Scotland. We sought the help of user researchers at Scottish Government and decided to run a workshop to look at the issue.

Those attending the workshop came from government departments (from UK and some governments of the devolved nations) as well as third-sector groups who had knowledge of this topic. One participant, for example, came from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) who were also trying to determine the best way to ask these questions as they prepared for the 2021 Census.

Getting buy-in from organisations to take part was easy, which was testimony to the desire to work together.

The organisations which sent representatives to the workshop were:

Sense-making workshop

The research team invited everyone to take part in a sense-making workshop to discuss and review all existing evidence which could be found, specifically:

  • when to ask about sex and/or gender
  • what to ask about sex and/or gender

The research team asked working group attendees to send in all evidence they had that informed existing question patterns they were using, as well any other relevant research they had.

The research team split the participants into two groups, each looking at one of the following:

  • when to ask
  • what to ask

Each group was asked to review all this evidence [details are available on request] and identify findings relevant to their specific task.

2 piles of papers with post-its on them. One saying 'What to ask' and the other 'When to ask.'

Copies of all evidence for each team

What the research team found

List of situations when it's OK to ask about sex/gender written on a piece of flipchart paper.

When to ask flipchart

List of what to ask if you need sex/gender details written on a sheet of flip chart paper.

What to ask

Main points

During three hours of open, honest and lively debate, the group identified some broad points which might be worth exploring further, when thinking about ‘when’ and ‘what’ to ask.

These included:

  • a general acceptance of the complexity of the issues
  • agreement that there’s no single way of asking about sex and/or gender – what and when you ask depends on why you’re asking
  • consensus on only asking the question when it’s necessary to do so

When to ask

Broadly speaking, the group felt the reasons for asking for someone’s sex and/or gender might be:

  • to advance equality – e.g. diversity monitoring to promote equality in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED)
  • for a Census – the Census covers everyone in the country and there are laws governing the process
  • to check identity – e.g. when someone wants to change their details on an exam certificate or a passport or when someone interacts with, for example, DWP/HMRC/Land Register (held by the Registers of Scotland, who have guidance on change of name or gender).
  • when someone’s seeking a legal entitlement that’s sex and/or gender specific – e.g. widow’s or widower’s pension
  • for health reasons – e.g. for vaccinations or screening processes. NHS/Public Health England are considering asking alternative questions to male/female to provide someone with the correct health care. Unfortunately, the content designer with responsibility for both vaccinations and trans/non-binary health content was unable to attend on the day, but we await further input from them with insights from work they’re doing in this area.

What to ask

It was felt that no single question would be sufficient to meet service needs and to collect data for equalities monitoring. What to ask will also depend on the circumstances and what you want to know.

For example, you may want to offer a third option in a sex and/or gender question for non-binary people. Members of the group also thought there might be a need to ask an additional question on whether the respondent is a transgender person (to collect data in order to advance equality).

For example, a transgender man (a person assigned a female gender at birth but who now identifies as male) would mostly likely select ‘male’ in a sex and/or gender question, rather than a third, non-binary option, so this question alone wouldn’t collect data on their transgender status.

Members of the group felt there was as yet insufficient evidence to finalise what to ask for either question. It was noted that important research into the wording of these questions is currently in progress as part of Census development, and decision-making should not pre-empt the completion of this research.


The group agreed that being inclusive doesn’t mean forgetting about users who aren’t transgender or non-binary.

Both the Scottish Trans Alliance (STA) and the Government Equality Office (GEO) felt that it’s better to be inclusive by adding additional options (e.g. adding a Mx title to Mr, Mrs etc.) rather than by degendering everything (e.g. not using titles at all). Scottish Trans Alliance made the point that some trans people can get just as annoyed as non-trans people by degendering because they’ve gone to great lengths to change their gender markers.


The following considerations were raised by various attendees during the workshop:

  1. The need to treat all service users with dignity and respect. Know who your users are – all users must understand the question.
  2. The need to minimise data collection that won’t be put to use.
  3. Understand the political context. There may be differences between the policy approaches of the governments of the UK and of the devolved nations.
  4. There’s also a risk of ‘backlash’, e.g. opinions in the public domain that undermine data collection, including social media campaigns and opposition from groups.
  5. Scottish Trans Alliance and Stonewall expressed concern that having separate questions on sex and/or gender risks treating gender identity as a ‘second tier’ to biological sex. They advised that most trans people will answer any question, whether or not it’s labelled ‘sex’, by using the gender they identify with.
  6. There will sometimes be legal necessity to ask (e.g. certain pension and benefit calculations may require knowledge of a person’s legal sex), as well as legal requirements (e.g. under the Data Protection Act or the new General Data Protection Regulation).
  7. There will be cost implications of adding questions to existing data systems (e.g. adding a third gender option).

UK Government policy position (covering England and Wales)

In 2016, the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry into transgender equality made over 30 recommendations in a wide range of policy areas. It called on the UK Government to take action to ensure full equality for trans people, emphasising the need to:

  • update existing legislation
  • provide better services, especially in the NHS
  • improve confidence in the criminal justice system

In July 2017, the GEO announced their intention to reform the Gender Recognition Act in July 2017, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Minister for Women and Equalities at the time, Justine Greening, said:

“This government is committed to building an inclusive society that works for everyone, no matter what their gender or sexuality and today we’re taking the next step forward.

“We will build on the significant progress we have made over the past 50 years, tackling some of the historic prejudices that still persist in our laws and giving LGBT people a real say on the issues affecting them.”

Read the full report.

The UK Government consultation will take a broad and open approach, and will invite opinions on a wide range of elements concerning the Gender Recognition Act 2004.

Scottish Government policy position

Scottish Government are currently analysing the responses to their consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. Discussions are ongoing, so the final policy is still to be firmed up.

Action 13 of the Fairer Scotland Action Plan states:

“We will review and reform gender recognition law so it is in line with international best practice for people who are Transgender or Intersex. This is a complex area of policy, so we will first undertake a full and wide ranging consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act. This consultation will be launched by summer 2017. It will cover establishing new arrangements for dealing with applications for legal gender recognition and the minimum age at which applications for gender recognition could be made. We aim to take action in response to the consultation shortly afterwards, with arrangements in place by 2020.”

Part 7 of the review of the Gender Recognition Act sets out the options being considered regarding non-binary people.

From 2018, the Scottish Household Survey has a third gender option, ie:

The third gender question in the Scottish Household Survey - how would you describe your gender identity? man/boy, woman/girl, in another way (if you would like to, please tell me what other words you use.


Disclosure Scotland believes that there is a need for a new pattern for the question and guidance for a new, more inclusive way of asking about sex and/or gender.

However, there’s currently insufficient evidence to determine exactly what the best new pattern for a question and guidance would be.

It’s a complicated issue. As well as the lack of evidence for a new pattern, we also need a clearer picture of the legal and policy situations in UK Government and in each of the governments of the devolved nations. This also will mean exploring the situation in the Northern Ireland Executive further.


While there remains insufficient evidence to determine a new pattern/guidance, Disclosure Scotland recommends the following next steps:

  1. Disclosure Scotland should revisit the need to ask about ‘gender’ as part of its application process. The responsibility for this sits with the DS user research team in conjunction with their policy team.
  2. Scottish Government’s Office of the Chief Designer should commit to furthering this research to define an evidence-based service pattern acceptable for use across Scottish Government. The responsibility for this should sit with Scottish Government.
  3. GEO works closely with the GDS Service Manual team to review the current UK guidance. This might include amending guidance on the existing pattern which currently contains the third option of ‘unspecified’, stating it’s under review as a result of emerging insights, or communicating this in some way to the user research and design communities. The responsibility for this may sit with GDS/GEO.
  4. The GDS Service Manual guidance could emphasise the importance of services only asking the question if it’s absolutely necessary. The responsibility for this may sit with GDS, though any changes should be agreed with the GEO.
  5. A comprehensive independent literature review should be commissioned to take place once the findings are available from the sex and/or gender question research currently being conducted by ONS as part of the Census development. This will establish what remaining knowledge gaps need addressed to inform the redesign of a question pattern that will be underpinned by evidence. Commissioning further research should be considered. The responsibility for this may sit with any of the organisations who attended the workshop, e.g. Scottish Government.
  6. We need a clearer picture of the legal and policy situations in UK Government and in each of the governments of the devolved nations. The responsibility for this may sit with many of the organisations who attended the workshop.
  7. All government agencies of the UK and devolved nations could start sharing evidence to ensure patterns keep up with changing user needs. The responsibility for this would sit with all those involved in government service design, owned by the relevant Heads of User Research of the government organisations who took part in the workshop.
  8. Disclosure Scotland should run a follow-up workshop following the reporting of ongoing research by ONS, and a literature review as necessary, to identify any gaps. The responsibility for this should sit with Disclosure Scotland’s User Research team in conjunction with the Scottish Government’s Office of the Chief Designer.

Research and report team

  • Jane Reid, Lead User Researcher, Disclosure Scotland
  • Stephanie Holland, User Researcher, Disclosure Scotland
  • Anne Walker, Senior Content Designer, Disclosure Scotland
  • Dr Philip J Kirk, Senior User Researcher, Scottish Government

For more information about this work, contact:


  • Myra Latendresse-Drapeau says:

    Hello from the Canadian Government! The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat as well as the Department of Justice are indeed leading similar work. If you are interested in learning more, please do not hesitate to get in touch:

  • David says:

    The view that providing a gender assists in identity seems to me to be historical, and illogical even before taking into account the difficulties it causes those who may not wish to classify themselves in this way.
    Yes, there are some names that are used almost equally across gender designations, but in how many instances will the gender designation be the only item that distinguishes one person from another? I would argue, not many.
    Gender has been used in identity historically for three main reasons, all more service related than identity related:
    a) to ensure that the correct services are delivered where this is dependent on gender;
    b) to ensure that discrimination on the basis of gender is not occurring;
    c) to discriminate on the basis of gender – hopefully largely historic.
    There is an issue that there is no real agreement on what the alternative to the traditional M/F option is – the piece at is quite telling on that.

  • Emma Dickson says:

    You seem to be overlooking the many women who regard gender as the oppressive construct of social expectations. I am a woman I do not identify as one. I do not have a gender – why would I identify with my own oppression? If you are going to ask for gender you need a box ‘ not applicable’ as well as ‘non binary’.

    When I see gender requested when you need to record biological sex (e.g. on my daughter’s nhs vaccination forms) I am insulted and angry. If you want people to feel respected and included you need to consider all of us not just the trans community. Incorrect recording of biological sex results in incorrect medical care.

    You also appear not to have addressed the implications on safeguarding of not asking for biological sex.
    You appear not to have considered that sex is required for equalities monitoring.

    Being ‘inclusive’ does not mean just taking account of the trans community but all of us. Engender does not speak for all women, other women’s groups with different views should have been invited.

  • V Pennycook says:

    To ensure that an organisation’s compliance with equality legislation is monitored it is necessary to ask a person’s sex (sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act). Gender or gender identity is not a protected characteristic and is therefore not required information, and asking may fall foul of the new data protection legislation which requires only minimum information is held.

    Quite frankly, I find the question highlighted in green above offensive. Many people simply do not have a gender identity and this option is not provided in the possible answers.

  • Cat Macaulay says:

    Gary thanks that’s definitely something we will add to a deeper lit review – thanks for you support!

  • Gary says:

    I recently read some interesting articles in Canadian Newspapers on the action that the Canadian Government is taking in this and connected areas .You may already be aware of this and in touch with the relevant Depts, but I thought it worth while mentioning. A Google search will bring up the latest articles. Apologies, if you have already explored this avenue, but I thought it worth mentioning just in case.

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