Gender and the census

Question 25 of the 2013 New Zealand Census asks:

Are you:

  • male
  • female

Spot the problem.

In response to queries on the topic, the very-helpful 2013 Census Twitter account @2013Census has said:

We just ask that people mark the response that shows how they are living their lives

Which is nice, but (a) sex and gender aren’t the same thing and (b) “male” and “female” and “are you” seem pretty inflexible.

A Facebook campaign has kicked off (well, was kicked off in 2011 when the Census was meant to be on) calling on people to tick both boxes for “gender” in order to confound the results.  Unfortunately, it’s not going to work, per @2013Census:

If the question about sex isn’t answered, or there are multiple repsonses, a response is imputed based on other answers

I’ve now asked what happens if you currently “live your life” as a man, but have given birth to babies – and thus would tick male but not skip question 25?  Which ticky-box does the “imputation” favour?  The response is:

If they’re completing their forms online they won’t be able to. If on paper it will come up with an error when the form is processed

At which point I presume they start “imputing” things again.

Here’s the clincher: despite the good key message about “how you live your life”, the fact is that the 2011 Census Content Report, when outlining why the sex question (and yep, they say “sex”, not “gender”) was not changed from 2006, says:

Sex refers to the distinction between males and females based on the biological differences in sexual characteristics.

Which pretty much seems to boil down to “penis male, vagina female”.  Hence the whole “only females can have given birth” assumption.

As 3News (but not Patrick Gower, alas) has recently covered, collecting data in this way is pretty limiting.  It means we just don’t have an overall national picture of sex and gender diversity among New Zealanders as a whole.  Think about this:  all the trans women who tick “female” but have birthed “0” children pull the fertility measurement down, while all the trans men who tick “male” but have had, say, triplets, aren’t included.

You instantly head to the comment box to say “but there aren’t that many trans men who’ve had triplets, QoT, so it doesn’t really hurt the data” but how the fuck would you KNOW?

While other government departments might collect this kind of information in their own ways, the issues are pretty obvious:  when Health collects information it’s only collecting it from people who are ill or injured; when Corrections does it it’s only collecting it from people who get into the criminal justice system.

Census needs to do a better job of collecting meaningful data about New Zealanders.  Unfortunately, double-ticking the sex box (yep, that sounds good and dirty) is only going to take up computer time.


  1. Pony Pony Tangerina (@ColeyTangerina)

    YES YES YES. Also, 1 in 100 live births is on the intersex scale, so what the hell are intersex folk supposed to put? As equally important as the lack of gender is, giving 2 sex options doesn’t even capture the correct picture of “biological differences in sexual characteristics” Stats NZ holds in such apparent priority.

    • QoT

      The cynical side of me wonders if really it all comes down to “is our wimminz having enuff BABBBBBBIES???”.

  2. MJ

    “If available, information such as the name of the person or their relationship to others in the household may be used to impute a value.”

    Considering people are also being told they have to use their legal name, this is particularly galling and gross.

    The only truly gendered question in the census for them to ~decide your true sex~ is question 25, and question 25 is terrible and shitty for reasons that probably warrant a whole other blog post, so.

    Basically my attitude right now is FUCK THE CENSUS FEMINIST HULK SMASH RAWR.

      • V (verbscape)

        Large, strong, enjoys smashing = clearly male. (Probably one of those blokes what pretends to be a feminist to score chicks, eh, Trev nudge nudge wink wink.)

  3. Good Gravey

    Aaaaaand already seen the “statistically irrelevant” comment.

    Can I complete the census and just vomit on it before sending it back?

  4. Moz's House

    I do like the two ticks approach. One small step at a time, eventually we will have a proper census. They can make me fill it out, but they can’t make me give only the answers they want.

    I note we are still only allowed one married couple per household, and one of them has to be the “person 1”. I really don’t understand that relationship question, it’d almost be worth borrowing a child for the night so every single person would be “other: unrelated adult”: But yes, lots of weirdness in the questions asked. And I do hope everyone answers “less than 20 hours per week” to the “are you enrolled anywhere else” question (29).

    But one nit, can you please stop calling it a “criminal justice system”. I agree that the system is criminal, but its a legal system designed to make sure some laws are seen to be obeyed some of the time. When justice happens that’s almost always more by luck than design.

    • QoT

      1. The two-ticks approach isn’t a step at all, as far as I can tell, because Stats NZ will not record the two-ticks. They’ll impute the data.

      2. I say “criminal justice system” using “criminal justice” as one term, not two words, and I’ll call it whatever I fucking please.

  5. Ben

    The statistically irrelavnt comment is completely bollocks. The only statisitcally relevant matter that I have come across with regards to the questions in the census that are no longer capable of capturing the variety in peoples lives is that if you change the questions then it becomes significantly more difficult and in some places impossible to compare one years answer with the previous years.

    Which makes it problematic when you’re looking for long term trends – which is one of the things I believe (I could be wrong) that the census is used for. It puts Stats NZ between a rock and a hard place. Statistically sound but fuzzy/inaccurate because of historical biases that were built in when the whole thing started. Or accurate but statisitcally pointless when looking for long term trends if the questions are changed. It’s not the best of situations but I sort of understand why population statisticians would be loathe to change a question.

    None of this, to the best of my knowledge would prevent Stats NZ from adding new questions to a census. I’m not entirely sure how you would word it but adding a new question to track the myriad of ways that people (publically) identify themselves would be a possible solution. Not sure.

    hmm. [wanders off to muddle over the question]

    • Chris Miller

      I suspect that making question 3 a two part question for sex and gender, and having each one have three options (male, female, other:) wouldn’t make it ENTIRELY statistically pointless for comparison with past years – the number of people changing what they put won’t actually be hugely high (trans people will probably stay with their gender and may or may not use what they were assigned at birth for sex; intersex will be able to put sex-other but some won’t; genderqueer-etc might almost be the largest group to change to using gender-other) so it would just be a margin of error for the responses in previous years and you actually have a margin of error anyway, just a hidden one – for people transitioning. I put female this time because I’m living at home and don’t want to come out over the census but in five years I won’t be.