By Elizabeth Peel and Han/Hannah Newman, Loughborough University, UK | Photo: Miss Klang (Flickr)
We are living in a cultural moment when, on the one hand, fault lines around gender are being contested, and on the other the very ground of what constitutes a progressive or regressive stance on gendered identities is shaking (Ellis et al., 2020). Gender related rites of passage, such as the North American ‘gender-reveal cake’ party, which typically happens when the foetus is in utero, according to some are ‘losing popularity because they fetishize babies’ genitals and underscore outdated social constructs of gender roles’ (Severson, 2019). There is both a revival in second wave feminist practices of ‘raising children without gender stereotypes’ (Mackay, 2018), and a ‘theybe boom’ of gender neutral, open or creative parenting which aims to decouple gender from sexed bodies or erase gender entirely. In this blog post we reflect on the engagement we had from participants to our online survey. We discuss how the method and timing of data collection may have encouraged critical engagement, and explore how that feedback was constructed without ‘taking sides’.
In our Attitudes to Gender survey we asked questions on gender in everyday life as well as legal gender. The survey ran in autumn 2018 in partial overlap with the UK Government’s public consultation on potential reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) in England and Wales. We received 3101 usable survey responses. In terms of legal gender, overall this sample of respondents (which was opportunistic so can’t be claimed to be representative of opinion in England and Wales) did not show appetite for changing the current two sexes registered close to birth approach. Just under 56 per cent (n=1,729) ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ with the statement that ‘The British system for assigning male/female at birth should be reformed’ primarily on the basis that the current system works for the majority. Some respondents objected to the wording of the statement itself – an issue we return to below – providing comments such as ‘The term “assigned at birth” is simply wrong. Sex is observed and noted as a fundemental [sic] immutable biological characteristic, like the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West!’. In contrast, the Scottish Government’s consultation on reform of the GRA found a greater appetite for reform with 60 per cent agreeing with the proposal to introduce self-declaration for legal gender recognition (Scottish Government, 2018).
Before we go on to explore the diverse interpretations of the statements within the Attitudes to Gender survey, it is worth saying more about the particular moment in which these data were collected. As we said, the GRA consultation was happening, and therefore the regulation of the legal status of trans and gender diverse people was high in public consciousness. And more broadly many claim “now” is a ‘critical period around gender’ as, especially with regard to sex and/or gender as binaries, ‘the language is contested’ (Davidson, 2019, p. 47). Given the length and complexity of our survey, this heightened public consciousness was beneficial in that we gained far more responses than we had anticipated, and with a high degree of detailed engagement with the free text questions. There was also the option to comment on opinion statements (e.g., ‘People who are not born male are disadvantaged’; ‘Identification as male/female should be removed from birth certificates’). So respondents were able to expand on their rating scale view if they wished, and some commented on this opportunity directly – ‘great use of free text spaces to explain answers’. We have found this a fruitful approach in previous research (e.g., Harding & Peel, 2007) as it allows respondents to explain their attitudinal choice (i.e., from strongly disagree to strongly agree) which encourages survey engagement at the time, and later helps with interpreting quantitative data.
Social media platforms, especially Twitter, played a significant role in the dissemination and spread of awareness of the survey (cf., Elton, 2019 for a satirical commentary on both social media and gender identity debates in contemporary Britain). We promoted the link to the online survey via the project’s Twitter handle (@futuregender) and our personal Twitter accounts. Emails were also sent out promoting the survey to numerous different off-line groups with an interest in gender, law or equality. Early in the survey recruitment period a thread on our survey appeared on Mumsnet, an online platform, which appears to favour ‘gender critical’ perspectives (Forstater, 2019). A gender critical perspective is the view that gender, especially a felt sense of gender identity either doesn’t exist or is less important than there being two groups of people differentiated by binary sexed characteristics that society treats unequally. The initial post on Mumsnet under the ‘feminism chat’ heading was entitled ‘Attitudes to Gender – a survey being used to write a new gender bill in the UK’ (21.10.2018, our emphasis) and comprised 90 posts. The way in which the survey was framed in this online space, plus the comments written by those who reported completing the survey via this platform, would suggest that engagement from women with a gender critical perspective was greater than might have been generated from our broader-based survey recruitment plan.
Virtual platforms such as Mumsnet were mobilised a number of times during the recruitment window for the survey. Cooper (2019) has referred to current gender debates as ‘a very binary drama’ and there was evidence of polarised binarisms within the survey respondents themselves with references made to ‘mumsnet brigade’ and ‘transphobic bigots’ on the one side, and ‘transgender activists’ on the other. One respondent reflected on the engagement from certain stakeholders as a ‘transphobic deluge from Mumsnet and a “woman’s” place who have a coordinated campaign to skew this study’ (trans woman, 49, lesbian).
In terms of the overall profile of the respondents, most were resident in England and Wales (75 per cent), most were legally female (73 per cent). We tried to increase the number of male respondents, through promoting the survey to men’s groups and by saying we particularly wanted male respondents on social media platforms but these efforts were largely unsuccessful. Similarly, attempts to increase responses from other under-represented groups didn’t make a big difference to the make-up of the sample. Fifteen per cent did not identify with the sex/gender they were assigned at birth, most identified as feminist (67 per cent, n=2066) and nearly half the sample reported holding left wing political views. The median age of respondents was 40 (ranging from 18-82 years).
Contested Survey Engagement
How opinions were conveyed in the survey were quite often confrontational and challenging. Respondents contested many of the opinion statements and also contested the aims of the research and, by extension, us as people conducting the research. For example ‘the people behind it have such strong biases that I doubt anything good or useful will come from it’ (Male, 67, heterosexual). We experienced complaints made to our Universities about the research, which again demonstrates the depth of feeling at the present time about the issues this project touches on. People have ideological investments and political stakes in both the production and consumption of research. In our view it isn’t achievable or desirable to aim to strip investments and stakes from research practices, and it would be disingenuous to claim that, in this case, a survey could discover an objective truth. Indeed, as previously mentioned, the language around this topic is currently heavily contested, and so using language in the survey that would be agreeable to all stakeholders could be deemed the impossible task. Comments about why people rated the opinion statements as they did are fascinating. Here is one example to illustrate the point. As a feminist project it would have been remiss of us not to ask about attitudes around gender-based structural inequality, so one statement read:
People who are not born male are disadvantaged. (Please explain your choice if you wish)
Here are three responses (in no particular order) that are illustrative of the diversity of views:
1) ‘Don’t Know’, with the explanation ‘What does “born male” mean/. I think you mean “assigned male at birth” …or do you? Absurd question’ (Female, 43, lesbian, intersex);
2) ‘Strongly Agree’, with the explanation ‘It is extremely offensive to call people “not Male” the word you are looking for Is [sic] female. It is erasing the sex class of female to call this group “not Male”. It would be offensive and unacceptable to call black and minority ethnics groups ‘not White’. In the same way this is offensive (Female, 35, heterosexual);
3) ‘Neither Agree or Disagree’, with the explanation ‘The premise of this question is transphobic and cisgenderist’ (Female, 48, lesbian).
For online survey research, is it problematic when the status or legitimacy of the quantitative response is undermined by an explanation that challenges the premise of the question? For example, criticizing a statement because of an objection to the use of the word gender (rather than sex) rather than simply responding to it on its own terms. Or research participant objection to the wording of statements or questions in surveys could in fact be commonplace, and not specific to this topic. A “typical survey” would not usually give respondents opportunity to comment on the wording of a statement they’re being asked to rate on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. For instance, in engaging with a statement such as ‘Single use plastics cause climate change’ a respondent may wish to qualify their response by questioning singular causation, and suggest instead that the phrase to be used is ‘contribute to’ rather than ‘cause’ but there would not be a mechanism within the survey to do this. Perhaps the person could raise this if there was the opportunity at the end of the survey for any general comments, but likely the respondent may be less motivated to raise this point later on.
As well as comments on individual statements, over half (n=1516) of the respondents provided feedback on the survey as a whole. Interestingly, those who completed the survey often offered a view on what stake or agenda of ours could be inferred from the questions. Again these comments were diverse, and sometimes accusatory. For instance, the five excerpts below are good examples of us being positioned as having an ideological investment in a side of the current debate – as both ‘anti trans’ and ‘pro trans’:
1) ‘I find the questions misogynistic, homophobic, interphobic and most worryingly encouraging of child abuse…You have NO respect for the 99% of the population who do NOT follow trans ideology’ (Female, 25, heterosexual);
2) ‘it quite clearly is one more effort to push the gender agenda, so transparent (no pun intended) and clearly needs to stop as it is oppressive to women and girls’ (Female, 27, heterosexual);
3) ‘Very leading questions, leading towards a ‘gender-critical feminist’ or TERF viewpoint’ (Female, 29, nonbinary, bisexual, queer);
4) ‘The survey is biased and leading in how it is written and is being filled out by transphobes in their droves so it will no doubt achieve the biased anti trans results it is aiming for’ (Nonbinary, 47, asexual/bisexual);
5) ‘There is cisgenderist language throughout. I have marked some’ (Male, 37, gay).
Our research team has some diversity – in terms of genders, sexualities and feminist politics – and the project is not seeking to support a ‘side’ in this ‘very binary drama’. The rhetorical aspects of these comments are interesting, especially the use of scientific terms to discredit the assumed goal of objectivity in the survey, note the references in comments 3 and 4 to ‘leading questions’ and being ‘biased’ (see also Kitzinger, 1990; Clarke, 2000). That our survey was ‘marked’ (comment 5) also functions to construct a lack of credibility, and being labeled as prejudiced and ‘encouraging of child abuse’ (comment 1) is again aimed at discrediting the research. Having said this, there were more positive comments on the survey – such as ‘extremely interesting/challenging and well-structured’, ‘very thought provoking which is good’, and ‘it’s given me a lot to think about. Thank you’.
Our project is future oriented, and as well as exploring the current debate around gender in England and Wales, there is an ambition too to help enable that debate to become less adversarial and to move beyond antagonism or mutual disregard. This is echoed by many, including practitioners such as Davidson (2019) who works for the Gender Identity Development Service and recently voiced a ‘wish for this area to be less polarised…My hope [for five years time] would be for us to be much more connected and less adversarial’ (p. 49).
An online survey, anonymous as it is and with distance created between the researchers and the researched, is not the optimum research method for furthering connection and mutual appreciation. It has the potential to encourage the “research participant keyboard warrior”. People are, generally speaking, far more nuanced and less fierce and forthright in person. It does, however, provide a snapshot of a cultural moment, which is valuable and interesting in its own right. And we are, of course, grateful to everyone who took the time and effort to participate.
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Cooper, D. (2019). A very binary drama: the conceptual struggle for gender’s future. feminists@law, 9(1). Retrieved from https://journals.kent.ac.uk/index.php/feministsatlaw/article/view/655
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Severson, K. (2019) It’s a girl! It’s a boy! And for the gender-reveal cake, it may be the end. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/17/dining/gender-reveal-cake.html