Clarity matters: how placating lobbyists obscures public understanding of sex and gender

This blog describes the results of polling we commissioned to test how well people understand what the terms ‘transgender woman’ and ‘trans woman’ tell them about a person’s sex. The findings show that there is substantial confusion about these terms, especially ‘trans woman’. They raise questions about how far organisations have adopted these as everyday terms, requiring little additional explanation, without taking an interest in how clearly understood they are.

An emerging language

Within the last few years, debate on gender identity and sex has become increasingly mainstream. This shift is clearly reflected in media coverage (IPSO/Mediatique 2020), in political party agendas, and public awareness more generally.

Over a longer period, campaigners have sought to influence how the debate is framed, including key terms and definitions. For example, lobby groups have ‘developed engagement strategies for influencing coverage and educating writers at key publications’ (IPSO/Mediatique 2020: 16). In 2016 the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a voluntary regulator for media outlets, published ‘Guidance on researching and reporting stories involving transgender individuals’, with input from trans lobby groups (see Sex Matters, 2023: 3).

As a result, terms such as ‘transgender woman’ and ‘trans man’ have become standard terms, widely used in the media and in public policy literature, such as health information. These terms have been popularised by campaigners who see identity as more significant than sex, and so a ‘transgender/trans woman’ is used to refer to a male person who now identifies as a woman; and ‘transgender/trans man’ to someone female who now identifies as a man. For the same reason, most media articles featuring trans-identified individuals refer to preferred pronouns instead of ones reflecting their sex. (IPSO, 2020; 2)

Sometimes, these terms are used with some explicit description of what they mean, in terms of what sex a person is. More often, such additional information has to be gleaned from other references in the text or from accompanying photographs.

British Cycling is to ban transgender women from the female category of its competitions following a nine-month review and consultation.

BBC, 26 May 2023

A transgender woman has been found guilty of raping two women when she was a man.

Guardian, 24 January 2023

A homeless transwoman who harassed hostel staff was moved from the women’s wing after admitting she registered as female ‘to see hot totty’…. [The Chair of the Bench] remanded her in custody to Lewes Prison – a men’s prison – again, on the basis there was a high risk she would reoffend or fail to appear.

Brighton and Hove News, 25 July 2023

Sometimes there may be no further explanation at all. Even where there is more information in the supporting text, the use of these terms in headlines is almost always free-standing. The use of self-declared pronouns can also make interpretation difficult.

Clarity about what these terms mean is important when they are used in any context where sex is relevant, such as discussion about access to single-sex spaces and services, participation in sports, or reporting of sex-patterned offending behaviour. It is, however, unclear how well this language is understood by the wider population. For example, in online discussions and below-the-line comments on news stories, we have noticed some confusion about what descriptions such as ‘transgender woman’ or ‘trans woman’ mean, in terms of whether someone is male or female.

We were not aware of work exploring how well-understood these terms actually are. To explore this further, we therefore commissioned Survation to undertake public opinion polling.

What do people think these terms mean?

In mid-June this year we asked:

When you hear someone described as a transgender woman, what do you think this means?

– Someone registered as male/a boy at birth
– Someone registered as female/a girl at birth
– Don’t know

We then asked a separate sample of people in late June the same question in relation to the term ‘trans woman’ (‘not sure’ was used in place of ‘don’t know’), to see if there was any difference in how well the two terms were understood. We asked the questions in two separate polls, so that we could look at the understanding of each term independently of the other.

We used ‘registered at birth’ to keep the question as unambiguous and free of contentious terms as possible. For the same reason, we asked only about a person’s sex as registered at birth, not what the term meant in relation to their present identity. The ordering of response options was randomised, to avoid ordering bias.

We deliberately did not ask what assumptions people made about what, if any, physical procedures a person had undergone. Our focus here was on people’s understanding of how these terms relate to sex, as observed and recorded at birth.

As our resources are limited, we focussed on ‘transgender/trans woman’, because these terms are the most relevant to current discussions of who can access women’s services, spaces and activities. Our findings however suggest that the media and others should invest in further polling here, which looks at ‘transgender/trans man’.

We polled a UK-wide sample. More on the polling methodology is included in the full results, available here. Survation follows established methods to obtain a representative sample of the population.

Results: misunderstanding and confusion

We did not expect to find quite how poorly understood these terms are.

Both terms were correctly understood by fewer than two-thirds of those asked. The remaining responses split roughly evenly between those who misunderstood, and those who were not sure.

Results for the two terms were broadly similar, although ‘trans woman’ was somewhat less likely to be understood correctly and more likely to be actively misunderstood.

Uneven effects across the population

Looking at how the results break down further by sub-groups of the population, the patterns become messier and more different for the two terms. The results for these smaller sub-groups need to be treated with some caution, but are worth attention (some columns below do not sum to 100% due to rounding).

Both sexes were more likely to understand ‘transgender woman’ correctly, but the difference in results between the terms was very small for women. For men, the understanding of ‘transgender woman’ was much higher, and they were also much less likely to misunderstand that term, than ‘trans woman’.

Neither income nor level of educational qualification were simple predictors of accurate understanding. However, those with no or the most basic level of qualifications were most likely to have difficulty with this language, with ‘trans woman’ causing most confusion. Its meaning was clear only to just over half (54%) of that group.

For both terms, those with Level 4+ (HE) qualifications did less well than at least one of the Level 3 (A-level equivalent) or Level 2 (GCSE-equivalent at higher grades) groups: see here for level definitions.

The largest variation was by region. The lowest accurate response rate of any group was well under half (43%), in London, for ‘trans woman’; over one-third of this group (35%) gave the wrong answer. This may possibly be connected to higher numbers who have English as a second language (see Biggs, 2023 for a similar hypothesis in relation to the gender identity question in the 2021 England and Wales census).

This deserves further consideration, alongside the results for the group with no or limited qualifications, as a likely plain English issue. Women with lower levels of qualifications or more limited language skills will already tend to be more socially and economically disadvantaged: their understanding of what they are being told about the operation of services and spaces appears especially likely to be affected by using this language.

The Scottish sub-sample, compared to the English regional and Welsh samples, was more likely to understand both terms correctly and least likely to misunderstand either. This may reflect the prominence of the debate around legal reform in Scotland and, perhaps even more, high-profile coverage of the Adam Graham/Isla Bryson case.

A similar effect was seen with a recent UK-wide parliamentary petition seeking support for making clear the meaning of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act, where Scottish constituencies showed much the highest rate of support. (An alternative petition arguing against any change to the Act did not however show a similar pattern.) The outlying Northern Irish result for ‘trans woman’ seems most likely to be an effect of the very small sub-sample.

Those over 45 were more likely to understand both terms accurately than those in younger groups. Younger age groups are generally assumed to be more engaged with issues of gender identity, so this finding is surprising.

Strikingly, of those aged 25-34, barely half gave the correct response, for both terms. Well over one-quarter (29%) of that group thought a ‘trans woman’ described someone who had been registered female/a girl at birth. As this effect was seen for both terms, separately sampled, it seems likely to be a real population effect. It may reflect more of the 25-34 respondents being uncomfortable with the idea sex is registered rather than ‘assigned’ at birth, or greater resistance to considering a person’s sex at birth entirely separately from their identity: but that would not immediately explain why the youngest age group records substantially better understanding of these terms than those aged 25-34. There is scope for further testing to understand what might explain this effect.

Accuracy matters

A headline like ‘RFL and RFU ban transgender women from competing in female-only forms of their games’ (BBC, 30 July 2023) means something different if you think it refers to a person who grew up female who now wishes to be regarded as a man, rather than to a person grew up male who now wishes to be regarded as a woman.

Our findings suggest that media outlets, policy makers, and polling companies all need to anticipate relatively high levels of misunderstanding and confusion when they use these terms. Using these terms, without spelling out what they mean for a person’s sex as matter of course, will leave a large minority of people at best uncertain. At worst, they will have a back-to-front understanding of what they are being told or asked. ‘Trans woman’ appears more likely than ‘transgender woman’ to be misunderstood, but both have problems. This evidently matters in any context where sex is relevant to what is being discussed.

Last week, following a recent consultation, IPSO issued new guidance on how to report issues relating to sex and gender identity. This includes a section on Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code (Accuracy) which states

Accurate presentation of policy or guidance is vital to keeping the public well-informed. Journalists and editors must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information when reporting on changes to policy or guidance relating to gender identity and the transgender community

Guidance for Journalists and Editors on Sex and Gender Identity IPSO 28 July 2023: 4

It invites publications to consider

“Is the terminology or statistics being used likely to create a misleading or inaccurate impression?”

Guidance for Journalists and Editors on Sex and Gender Identity IPSO 28 July 2023: 6

The guidance does not cite any research into how terms are understood by audiences and does not mention commissioning any new work here.

The results of our polling show that to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, journalists and others need to spell out clearly what sex of person is being referred to, in any context where sex matters. We hope IPSO and other organisations which need to communicate with the public will commission further research as necessary, to understand better how language here may confuse or clarify. We will meantime share our findings with IPSO and the British Polling Council (BPC).