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Whose business is it anyway?

Published: 08/02/2017

Data collection challenges around sexual orientation and gender identity

In the world of data collection (as in life) there are some things that people are more comfortable asking about than others.  As a sector we’ve grown more confident in routinely capturing many protected characteristics from our staff and students for ‘equality monitoring purposes’, but still seem a little uncertain about sexual orientation, gender identity and trans identity or history.  In my experience the most common question raised is in fact ‘is it really any of our business?’

Most HEIs should be in no doubt that promoting equality for LGBT+ staff and students is very much their business: sexual orientation and gender reassignment (trans identity/history) are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and as such are included in a HEI’s Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). Institutions should think carefully about what type of information might help them to understand their staff and students through the lens of these characteristics.

From our work with gender, race and disability we know that collection of anonymised equality data can be a powerful tool in examining barriers to equality, whether that be student progression and attainment, staff promotion, satisfaction with support services or simply a sense of ‘belonging’. Qualitative data is an important consideration here too. Mandatory individualised data collection from all individuals for the protected characteristics of sexual orientation and gender reassignment is not strictly necessary: surveys and focus groups, for instance, could be alternative ways of demonstrating that an institution is undertaking it’s PSED, but the effectiveness may depend on the level and types of engagement the institution undertakes.

At sector level HESA does not currently require returns for sexual orientation, and gender identity (used by HESA currently in such a way as a proxy for trans identity), although it has facilitated the collection of sexual orientation and gender identity since 2012/3.  Two years after this introduction, institutional return rates remain varied across the four nations, and our latest statistics report notes that gender identity is still unknown for 72.1% of all HE staff and 63.1% of students, whilst sexual orientation is unknown for nearly 3 out of 5 of all staff (only slightly better for students). These are genuine ‘gaps’ in our knowledge, excluding circumstances where individuals were questioned and declared ‘preferred not to say’ (and even where data is known reliability can be affected by confusion around the question being asked). We are however seeing year on year ‘gains’ in filling these gaps, and at a slightly higher rate for the student data: available sexual orientation data, for example, increased by over 9 percentage points in a year.

National data like this is important as it can help to contextualise equality and diversity efforts at sector level, but it relies on increased consistency in encouraging data collection at institutional level. Consistency is key – about a third of HEIs returning student gender identity and sexual orientation data only did so for 10% of their student body.

Hesitation around routinely collecting these protected characteristics can prevail even amongst those who are supportive of equality monitoring in general.  Sometimes there is a concern about confidentiality of sensitive personal data (made somehow more potent by our cultural associations of these particular characteristics as more intensely  ‘private’ than other characteristics); sometimes it’s an understandable fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and causing offence in terms of the collection question and available responses. For many it’s the assumption of high non-disclosure rates, though care should be taken around such assumptions, with reflection on what low disclosure rates might say about the perceived culture of the institution: the EHRC advises that in such cases an institution ‘should take steps to engender a culture of trust in which this information could be collected in the future.’  Trust is indeed key: the institution must be clear how such data will be used and why.

If you’re considering updating your equality data collections within your institution these are all fair questions – in fact, vital questions – to ask, discuss, and seek best practice on. Perhaps LGBT history month is a good time to start the conversation with your staff and students.

Jess Moody @ECUJessM
Senior Policy Adviser, ECU