October 3, 2023 - 10:30am

In her 2019 book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez tracks the way in which a dearth of accurate data on biological sex affects women’s lives. Ignoring the female body, she writes, “has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate”.

Invisible Women is an international bestseller and winner of the Royal Society Science Book Prize. Yet, along with other works warning of the lack of female-specific data in science and medicine, it has risen to prominence at the same time as what Kath Murray, Alice Sullivan and Lisa Mackenzie describe as “the rapid loss of data on sex”. 

Following several years of protest from grassroots feminist groups, the Government has finally decided to act. This week Science Secretary Michelle Donelan has announced a review into public bodies gathering data on self-identified gender without also collecting it on biological sex. This is welcome news, not least because the review will be led by Sullivan, head of research at UCL’s Social Research Institute and one of the first academics to raise the alarm. 

Nonetheless, it should never have come to this. It is a measure of how effective trans activists have been at positioning themselves as the only victims who matter. When feminists have criticised the removal of sex-based questions from standard data collection, they have been dismissed as petty, as though they are creating an imaginary problem in order to make others feel excluded. 

It took a judicial review crowdfunded by Fair Play for Women for the ONS to agree to define the sex question in the England and Wales 2021 Census to specify legal sex, rather than gender identity. The claim that trans people are too small a population to really change results continues to be used to dismiss concerns for accuracy. Yet if “woman” does not mean “someone who is biologically female”, no data on women can reliably be said to capture the needs and experiences of that group. 

Donelan is portraying the review as a response to “the denial of biology and the steady creep of political correctness”. While this will likely sell well to social conservatives, it’s also important to emphasise just how anti-feminist — and anti-progressive — a refusal to collect sex-based data is. Because the world is already organised to accommodate one type of sexed body at the expense of another, what we get is not a situation in which all bodies are treated as sexless (albeit with varied gender identities), but one in which all continue to be treated as male by default. 

Such a world leads, as Criado Perez notes, “to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work. It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.” These are significant human rights issues. It is obscene that finding a solution to them has been conflated with bigotry. 

Hopefully the review will lead to a return to the tracking of sex-based data by institutions, including the NHS, which should have known better than to ever consider conflating sex with gender. The alternative to this is simply saying female people don’t count. It’s saying that they’ve thus far been relatively invisible, and can afford to be even more so. 

While it’s perfectly possible to say this and be on the right side of history (since when has history prioritised women?), no one should kid themselves that it puts them on the side of what is good and humane.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.