NICOLA Sturgeon has come under fire after refusing to define what a woman is.

The First Minister, who last year described herself as a “feminist to my fingertips”, said to do so would “oversimplify” the debate on transgender rights.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross suggested her response was a failure of leadership and would be "troubling for many people".

Ms Sturgeon’s SNP-Green government is currently putting legislation through Holyrood to reform gender recognition laws.

The changes would make it quicker and easier for trans people to obtain a certificate confirming their acquired gender under the law.

Under the current system this takes at least two years and a medical diagnosis.

But the Holyrood law proposes doing away with the medical diagnosis in favour of self-declaration, with the timescale reduced to six months.

Critics say the changes could help male sexual predators abuse the system.

However ministers argue this is not the case, and the law will not abolish single-sex spaces for women such as domestic violence refuges.

The debate over trans rights has led to splits in the SNP and other parties, as well as leaving politicians apparently flummoxed by what appear relatively simple questions.

Some supporters of trans rights argue that men who change gender to become trans women are women just as much as if they had been born biologically female. 

Their criticssay a woman is an “adult human female”, and that people born biologically male, while they can change gender in the eyes of the law, cannot change their biological sex.

Last year, the UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was wrong to say only women have a cervix, adding: “It is something that shouldn’t be said, it is not right.”

In March this year he also refused to say whether a woman can have a penis.

Boris Johnson said recently that “biology” was a fundamental factor in distinguishing between men and women.

 In an interview with The Times newspaper, Mr Sturgeon refused to define the word “woman”.

She said: “I’m not going to, I’m just not going to get into this debate at a level that’s about simplified and lurid headlines.”

The First Minister went on: “Trans people are amongst, possibly the most, stigmatised and discriminated against minorities in our society.

“And every time we oversimplify this debate, trans people actually suffer and I think it’s important, they’re such a tiny minority, that we actually take the issues around protecting and enhancing the rights of trans people seriously.”

Ms Sturgeon also said she was confident Holyrood would vote through gender reforms and that the SNP would remain united on the issue, despite several internal disputes.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, a committed Christian, and SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC, have both had reservations about the reforms.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said a woman was "an adult female" human being and he was "surprised" that a politician of Ms Sturgeon's experiennce had not been prepared for the question. 

He told the Herald: "It’s a question that is actually quite simple when you boil it down. Biologically, we have male and female and women are adult females.”

"This is a very emotive issue, it’s one that clearly divides a lot of opinion, and sadly the debate around it is very toxic.

“But as a politician and as a leader, you have to give a clear response, and Nicola Sturgeon not being able to do so will be troubling for many people.”

Former SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, now a senior member of Alex Salmond’s Alba party, asked why Ms Sturgeon had refused to define what the word women meant.

She tweeted: “How can politicians legislate for us if they won’t say who and what we biologically are? 

“Talk of ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny’ is hot air if you don’t know what a woman is.”

Last year, Ms Sturgeon dismissed criticism of her gender reforms as “not valid”. 

She told MSPs: “Gender recognition reform is about changing an existing process to make it less degrading, intrusive and traumatic for one of the most stigmatised minorities in our society.

"We should focus on the real threats to women, not the threats that, while I appreciate that some of these views are very sincerely held, in my view, are not valid.”

Lucy HunterBlackburn of policy analsysts MurrayBlackburnMackenzie said: “With draft legislation now under consideration in Parliament, it is staggering that the FM should persist in her refusal to recognise the conflict of rights inherent in her acceptance that a woman is anyone who declares themselves so.”  

Feminist group For Women Scotland said: "Nicola Sturgeon’s refusal to define women is depressing, but not unexpected.

"This is a First Minister who has claims to stand against sexism in politics, yet can’t bring herself to meet and talk to women harmed by her policies.

"Her track record on dealing with harassment and abuse in her own party leaves much to be desired.

"Self-ID, which we know has had a disproportionately harmful effect on the most vulnerable, including minority women, seems to be her all-consuming political goal.

"Her self-ID proposals are not about 'trans people' but for anyone who chooses, for whatever reason, to change sex in law.

"Her Ministers won't even say that they would disallow sex offenders from acquiring Gender Recognition Certificates which confer unprecedented levels of privacy.

"All the evidence of harms to girls in school forced to use mixed sex facilities, to women in prison, to the hundreds of girls who are being affirmed as the opposite sex and set on a path to lifelong medicalisation is to be dismissed and discounted.

"If a determination to press on with this regressive, sexist policy is not misogyny - albeit wrapped in a blue and pink bow - we don't know what is!"