Women's sector letter to Joan McAlpine MSP

This week the Scottish Parliament held its Stage 1 Debate on the general principles of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. Following the debate, Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee convener Joan McAlpine MSP took to Twitter to criticise the work of Engender and other women's organisations. In order to clarify and correct some inaccurate statements which were made, Engender, along with Scottish Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Close the Gap, Zero Tolerance and Equate Scotland, wrote to Ms McAlpine and other members of the Committee.

You can read our full letter below.


logos of Engender, Scottish Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Equate Scotland, Close the Gap and Zero Tolerance


Dear Ms McAlpine,

Twitter statement on the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

We are writing to you in response to the statement on the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill that you released on Twitter last night, which surprised us with its tone, tenor, and inaccuracy regarding our organisations’ advocacy on data and the Census. As the Committee may be considering our evidence at Stage 2, we thought it would be helpful to attempt to clarify again some of your persistent misapprehensions about our roles and funding, feminist thinking on gender identity, and our specific interest in the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

Women’s sector roles and funding

All of our organisations work for women’s equality and rights, and the policy advocacy that the signatories to this letter undertake is informed by the gender expertise and analysis within our organisations, which has been developed over decades. This expertise comes from feminist scholarship, evidence drawn from delivery of services and programmes, and work with women and a wide range of women’s groups. We neither ‘represent women and girls’, nor make any claim to.

It is completely inaccurate to say that ‘we will not listen to concerns of ordinary women’. All of our organisations substantively engage with women at events, through consultation and participatory research processes, and through hearing from women using frontline services. Although questions around gender identity and women’s equality are currently very visible on social media and in MSP mailbags, they are not emerging as a significant area of concern in our engagement activities. Where our organisations have been approached by a small number of individuals on this topic, we have responded in a way we would on any other issue of women’s equality; sharing our position, signposting to resources, and offering relevant opportunities for engagement.

Given the increasing polarisation of the discussion about gender identity, it is regrettable that you have exacerbated this by suggesting that our organisations withhold membership from women with gender critical views. The only one of our organisations that has individual members is Engender, and membership is open to all women who are willing to tick a box to say they are a feminist. Engender offers free organisational membership to campaign groups, which includes space on the organisation’s website to promote the campaign, but not influence over Engender’s policy positions. Organisational membership is not extended to single-issue groups campaigning directly against Engender advocacy, in order to avoid confusion. Where membership for an organisation has been refused for this reason, individual women involved in the campaign have been offered free personal membership of Engender. It is therefore incorrect to state that women who disagree with Engender’s position have been denied membership.

Our organisations wrote to you in your role as Convener on 22 January to confirm that our funding from Scottish Government does not require any of us to adopt any particular policy positions, and that we have autonomy with regard to the content of our policy advocacy. We are aware that the Minister for Older People and Equalities copied you into a letter on 24 January that confirmed that equalities organisations are funded to be ‘critical friends’ of Scottish Government, and to offer advice based on expertise. We are proud of our independence and the impact of our advocacy and its outcomes for women’s and girls’ equalities and rights. Critical recent successes for our organisations include: the Domestic Abuse Act, inclusion of the principle of equality and non-discrimination on the face of the Social Security Act, the forthcoming gender pay gap action plan, Equally Safe, publication of guidance on gender equal play in the early years with the Care Inspectorate, split payments of Universal Credit, a post-implementation review for the Fairer Scotland Duty, implementation of the Barnahus model, expansion of advocacy for rape complainers, the Building Equality employability programme for domestic abuse survivors, and the recommendations of the First Minister’s Advisory Council on Women and Girls.

We regret that you continue to repeat an accusation about our autonomy that has been denied, and for which you can offer no evidence.

Feminist thinking on gender identity

There is a spectrum of thinking on gender identity among feminist scholars and practitioners, but globally there is a consensus emerging around trans-inclusive feminism. National women’s organisations from across the UK and Ireland are trans-inclusive, following over a decade of thinking and discussion among their members and networks. England is palpably an outlier within the UK, in terms of the prevalence of gender critical feminism, and the UK is an outlier in global terms. However, there has always been a gender critical strand within British feminism, and it comes to the fore on a cyclical basis.

Through our work, each of our organisations challenges sexist and patriarchal views of women and traditional gender roles across all spheres of public and private space. Theoretical discussions about how gender, gender identity and sex interrelate are important to feminist analysis, and the gender lens that our collective work applies to policymaking in Scotland. It is vital that these discussions do not devolve into a conversation that is polarised and evidence-light.

All of our organisations recognise that the policy implications of trans-inclusion require to be worked through in such a way as to ensure women’s safety, privacy, and dignity. We outlined three particular concerns in our response to the Gender Recognition Act reform consultation, which you quoted from in your email to Engender of 7 December. These are: increasing gender-disaggregated data (to support gender-sensitive policymaking), ensuring that Scottish Government proposals for amendments to the Equality Act continue to protect women, and developing appropriate mechanisms for prisons (and other single-sex spaces) that would prevent male perpetrators maliciously claiming trans status in order to harm women.

Our organisations hold discussions with the Government, delivery agencies, and NRS as part of our regular programmes of engagement work and will continue to advocate around these issues.

Specific interest in the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

Our collective interest in the Census is to ensure that its design creates norms for data-collection in Scotland that maximise the quality and coverage of gender-disaggregated data collection and analysis. This is because such data is required to make policy that meets the needs of women and girls.

As you know from correspondence on 7 December and thereafter, none of our organisations had originally planned to respond to the consultation on the Census. This is because the remit of the Committee’s call for evidence only specified ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation ’[1], which are not core to our work. As you also know, all policy advocacy organisations respond to only those Scottish Parliament or Scottish Government consultations that are strategically relevant to them and the issues around which they advocate.

We sought permission from the clerks on 7 December to submit a note to the Committee to provide context and information. This followed oral evidence to the Committee from a grassroots organisation that recommended approaches to data-collection that would have had a severe chilling effect, in our view, on public bodies’ gathering and analysis of sex-disaggregated data. We also wished to rebut misleading evidence about what Census data is used for, and specifically stipulate that it is not used to generate information on the pay gap, or in the design of violence against women or health services.

You welcomed our note in correspondence on 7 December, clearly understanding us to be engaging with the question of data, writing, “The committee clerks have just told me you are making a late submission on the Census bill. That's really good news, so thank you.[…] [A]s data gathering and the definition of sex as a protected characteristic (not gender) is emerging as a central point in terms of the bill, I am sure the committee would be keen to hear your views.”

It is unclear to us why your understanding should have shifted so dramatically between 7 December and 28 February such that you have shared such an inaccurate, partial, and negative assessment of our involvement in the work of your Committee.

We are collectively concerned that our position has been so poorly misrepresented. We are always grateful for opportunities to assist parliamentary committees and their members - including the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee - with their scrutiny role and ensure a gendered approach to evidence. We continue to be at your disposal in this regard and welcome further conversations which seek to resolve any outstanding areas of confusion. As always, our primary focus is that the equality and rights of women and girls are protected and strengthened, and that will remain the key determinant of our future work with the Census Bill.

Yours sincerely,

Signatures of the directors of the organisations signing the letter

























[1] Remit for the Call for Evidence: The Committee seeks views on the proposals contained in the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill including the proposed power in the Bill to provide for questions dealing with “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to be included in the Census for the first time. Link.

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Engender Parliamentary Briefing: Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill Stage 1 Debate February 2019Engender Parliamentary Briefing: Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill Stage 1 Debate February 2019 Engender briefing ahead of the debate on the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

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