Alice Sullivan

Coronavirus shows why it’s vital to distinguish sex and gender

The Covid-19 pandemic shows all too clearly the importance of data. Knowing that men and older people are more likely to die and that certain ethnic groups are also more at risk is worrying but vital information. Without accurate data, we are flying blind. In England and Wales, men are around twice as likely as women to die from the disease. But do fears about wading into the gender debate mean that crucial statistics are not being collected properly?

Despite the fact that it is more obvious than ever that sex matters, both government and researchers are failing to collect proper data on sex. A recent academic survey on coronavirus and health illustrates the current confusion about sex. Instead of asking respondents whether they are male or female, it gives six response categories, including ‘gender fluid and non-binary’. Yet people who identify as ‘gender fluid’ come in two sexes, just like the rest of us. It seems unlikely that the virus cares whether you are gender fluid, and it’s highly plausible that ‘gender fluid’ males and females have different experiences of labour market discrimination and domestic violence according to their sex. We can respect the identities of trans people without pretending that sex does not exist.

Without data on sex, we cannot develop evidence-based policy to tackle inequalities between men and women

Mortality is not the only stark reminder of the salience of sex. Caroline Criado Perez has drawn attention to the fact that personal protective equipment is designed with male dimensions in mind, leaving many female frontline staff wearing unsafe, ill-fitting gear. Women and men are also experiencing different social and economic impacts due to the lockdown. Mothers are bearing the brunt of homeschooling, with inevitable consequences for their paid work. Domestic abuse of women has increased, with a reported rise in the number of women murdered.

Sex is a fundamental demographic variable which affects almost every aspect of our lives.

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