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The Athena Swan charter was established in 2005 to advance the careers of female academics in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM). Yet it now discourages academic departments from collecting data on sex.

Athena Swan awards were designed to incentivise academic departments to support women. Monitoring gaps between men and women in recruitment and career progression was an essential criterion. However, Advance HE, which runs Athena Swan, now recommends that data be collected exclusively on gender-identity, not sex. As they state:

Advance HE recommends asking a question about gender rather than asking a question about sex. This ensures equality efforts are… inclusive of a diverse range of gender identities.’

In common parlance, the term ‘gender’ is used as a synonym for sex, while sociologists often use ‘gender’ to denote the social hierarchy which constrains individuals according to their sex. For example, the ‘gender wage gap’ refers to the gap between the sexes. If sex really was a spectrum, we would instead refer to the ‘gender wage gradient’. Gender-identity refers to an individual’s psychological sense of self where this clashes with their sex. The Athena Swan principles commit to tackling the gender pay gap, but by redefining gender as ‘an internal perception of oneself’, Advance HE overwrites the meaning of this commitment.

Advance HE’s recommended question on ‘gender’ is intended to gather data on gender identity.

‘How would you describe your gender?

  • Man
  • Non-binary
  • Woman
  • In another way (specify, if you wish):
  • Prefer not to say.’

If a question on gender identity was asked in addition to one on sex, this would provide useful insights into the experiences of trans and non-binary people of each sex. Yet Advance HE explicitly recommends against asking about both sex and gender-identity, as they say this could be confusing and may ‘inadvertently out’ someone who identifies as trans.

It is unclear why such a question would present any more of a risk of ‘outing’ than data collection on sexuality, or indeed any other potentially sensitive optional question. Universities and other data owners follow strict protocols regarding the non-identifiability of individuals. The idea that collecting data on sex is unduly intrusive was rejected in a recent judicial review of the England and Wales census.

Without data on sex, how can universities fulfil their public sector equality duty to monitor and publish data on the protected characteristic of sex? Advance HE assert that, ‘The inclusion of identities “man” and “woman” will also support the small number of instances where binary data about sex is required’. Yet each of the response categories to their recommended question will contain both males and females. This question captures neither sex nor trans status.

‘Athena Swan’s embrace of ‘gender as a spectrum’ appears incompatible with its founding purpose. This raises uncomfortable questions about the tendency of the HE sector to outsource its thinking about equalities to external bodies.’

Perhaps Advance HE assume that the number of gender-diverse people is so small that collecting data on gender-identity is almost equivalent to collecting data on sex. We do not yet have UK population data that allows us to assess the size and distribution of the trans population, but international evidence suggests rapid change in this regard. Highly educated youths, particularly girls, are increasingly likely to identify outside of their natal sex. According to a US study, one in 2,000 female undergraduates identified as transgender in 2008, with this rate rising to five percent in 2021.

Given the slow growth in the numbers of women studying and pursuing careers in subjects such as physics and engineering, plausible rates of gender-diverse identification could obscure trends over time, making it impossible to monitor progress. For example, women who reject feminine sex-stereotypes may be both more likely to identify as trans/non-binary and also more likely to pursue male-typical disciplines such as physics. Removing such women from the female category would lead to an underestimate of female representation.

A further problem with asking only about gender-identity and not about sex is that it may generate non-response by confusing or offending respondents. We have seen data from one university showing that the proportion of ‘prefer not to say’ responses from those offered academic posts jumped to around a quarter following a change in question wording. This was accompanied by an apparent large reduction in females offered posts, which became impossible to interpret.

Athena Swan has a past record of promoting positive change. However, its mission has altered over time, including a shift away from promoting women in STEMM to promoting ‘gender equity’ across all subject areas. Athena Swan’s embrace of ‘gender as a spectrum’ appears incompatible with its founding purpose. This raises uncomfortable questions about the tendency of the HE sector to outsource its thinking about equalities to external bodies.

More content by Alice Sullivan and John Armstrong