The Solicitors Regulation Authority has changed the way it collects information about the sex of people working in law.
The move affects its biennial Diversity Questionnaire and follows the recent High Court ruling which ordered the Office of National Statistics to change its guidance for the 2021 Census.
The SRA said that it had altered its approach "after considering the research undertaken by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in preparation for the 2021 Census and listening to a range of voices on the matter", adding, "We appreciate there are many strongly held views on these issues".
The legal regulator's explanation omitted to mention that the ONS's "research" included being taken to court by campaigning feminists over its lax approach to recording sex, and losing.
The SRA may also have been influenced by the outcry from lawyers over its last attempt at talking about sex two years ago.
In its 2019 questionnaire, the SRA asked, "Which gender to you identify with?" followed by, "Do you consider your gender identity to be different from your registered sex at birth?"
The formulation of its questions prioritised recording gender identity over biological sex, prompting some lawyers to complain that the SRA was failing to collect effective data on women in the profession, harming its ability to identify and tackle sex-based issues surrounding the hiring, retention, promotion and treatment of female lawyers.
Audrey Ludwig, the director of Suffolk Law Centre, asked, "If you do not keep accurate equality monitoring data how can you analyse trends on issues like pay gap and sex discrimination/incidents of harassment on grounds of sex?"
Caroline Criado Perez, award-winning author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, said, "I understand why orgs do this, they mean well, but less data is never the answer. Sex AND gender".
The SRA appears to have listened, and its new survey now leads with a straightforward question asking, "What is your sex?", followed by a question to capture gender identity which asks, "Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?"
Unlike the Census, however, the SRA's question on sex comes with a third option. Respondents can give their sex as either "male", "female", or "another preferred description".
"We understand why the ONS uses a binary sex question which requires people to select male or female as per their legal documents", states the SRA's explanatory notes*. "We felt that for us, a more inclusive approach was appropriate, so we have provided a third option for the sex question for those who do not identify as male or female." The SRA declined to provide an example of a third option for sex, stating that "the explanatory notes do what they need to".
Firms regulated by the SRA will be required to provide their data in late summer.
*In fact, the court ruled that the ONS had to change its reference to "legal documents" to the stricter "sex recorded on your birth certificate or Gender Recognition Certificate", but hey, who's counting.