Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

Universities UK: Separate but equal?

“Excuse me, may I please ask you to sit on the other side of the room, you are a woman.” A Universities UK report on external speakers at higher education institutions published at the end of November advocated in favour of gender segregation if so demanded by external speakers. The report deals with issues of freedom of speech and – politely said – special treatment for persons with slightly odd views on how an audience should sit. Luckily, the content of the report spurred immense outrage for even daring to support gender segregation. Critics pointed out that no one on the basis of his or her consciously chosen ideological views should be allowed to take discriminatory actions against people for attributes or characteristics they were born with.

The contested parts of the report have been withdrawn, however, the internet never forgets and consequently the controversial parts of the report can be traced back. The authors of the report tried to find a way to ‘accommodate’ external speakers wishes by recalling that segregation must not discriminate against students, as this would be illegal under the Equalities Act. In its original version the report suggested the following on the rather disturbing idea of gender segregation.

“If the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities). This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back. Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way. If imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group holding the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

Although Universities UK firstly insisted on defending its ‘righteous’ view on allowing to discriminate against others, it had in the meantime backed down by removing its ‘well-meant’ suggestion of gender segregation. Good.

UniversitiesUK - External speakers in higher education institutions (updated version)

UniversitiesUK - Note of advice