Universities UK speaker guidelines excuse gender discrimination
The release of new guidance for British institutions by Universities UK on how to deal with the invitation of controversial external speakers is a heartening sign that institutions are taking this concern seriously.
This is an extremely difficult issue for universities to deal with, and any help that can be provided should be welcomed.
However, we do have significant concerns about the tacit acceptance of gender segregation by the guidance, which declares that gender segregation would be acceptable as long as the segregated sections are side by side.
The guidelines state:
“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”.
Incredibly, the report is also at pains to highlight that the freedom of religious speakers to segregate is considered as important than the right of women not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their gender, arguing:
“...if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully”.
In our May 2013 briefing ‘Unequal Opportunity - Gender Segregation on UK University Campuses’, Student Rights found that of 180 events logged 46 (25.5%) were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender, or implied that this would be the case.
In a number of cases it was clear that women would be disadvantaged by this, including a suggestion at Aston University that “segregation is observed at all events..ladies at the back, men at the front of the lecture theatre”.
In one even more egregious example an event at London South Bank University (LSBU) was accompanied by the comment “we have a separate room for sisters”.
While we have no problem with students choosing to self-segregate, any imposition on students is simply unacceptable, regardless of where the segregated areas are in the room.
We hope that Universities UK will reassess this section of their guidance in order to ensure that religious discrimination against women on our campuses is not legitimised in any way.