Alison Wolf

March 16, 2007

Do you fancy an Ann Summers party, in term time, with a little help from the taxpayer? Dream on, obviously, for the men; but for the rest of us, it seems, you just need to pick the right university. Edible thongs and chocolate body dust, here we come.

For readers outside the UK, and anyone who has been immured in a library night and day since 1987, I may need to explain a little. Ann Summers is a British sex-store chain that sells sex toys and lingerie the way people sold (or maybe still sell?) plastic Tupperware. Ann Summers parties are strictly female. You invite a group of friends, and a "party organiser" comes to your home, equipped with a range of products for you all to examine and, hopefully, buy.

There's a lot of joking and giggling, usually a lot of drinking, and a lot of buying and selling too. This company trades on its sense of humour, though I had better spare The Times Higher 's blushes and refer you to their website to find out exactly what "multi-tasks like a woman". Chief executive Jacqueline Gold, whose idea the parties were, has created a company with a £150 million annual turnover and shops in every high street of respectable Middle England. She looks the very model of a modern female executive - as, indeed, she is - and was in the papers a few weeks ago meeting the Queen at an event celebrating female success.

It is all very much female empowerment 2007-style. In 21st-century Britain, women also make up a sizeable majority of undergraduate and graduate students. They get substantially more first-class degrees than men in the UK as whole and form an increasing share of the student body in traditionally male subjects, such as engineering, law and even surgery.

Meanwhile, back in the schools, boys are behind at every point - at seven, 11, GCSE, A level - with working-class boys a particularly low-achieving group. Conversely, within a given graduate occupation, young childless women now do as well as their male contemporaries.

In spite of this, many universities and student unions still feel that women need special treatment. They have special women's officers, women's committees and academics occupied with the problems female students may encounter, as women, in a supposedly hostile environment. They also allocate funds for activities to help women cope, and bond, and generally survive the whole ordeal. Enter the Ann Summers parties - because, in a number of places I know about, those funds have been very welcome when organising a female bonding event, sex toys and all. (And, no, I wasn't invited.)

We are not talking great sums of money here. In the context of waste, it hardly registers. But it does raise some interesting questions about when a group should get special treatment as a collective. I thought I would have a quick trawl around London and see how different universities approached this. The results were a bit predictable, in that reputation and practice seemed to be quite closely linked. The London School of Economics student union publishes a special women's handbook (but not a men's one), and its officers include people with special responsibilities for antiracism, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, disabilities and women. Meanwhile, here at King's College London, we fund women's rugby, football, cricket and basketball but don't have a women's officer. As far as our union officials know we never have - and while memory is pretty short that seems to me quite plausible. The same goes for Imperial College London, none of whose student officers has any special women's responsibilities but which also funds muddy outdoor female sports.

Most other universities in London go for the standard line. The University of East London's union, for example, has eight "liberation units", including queer, disabled, student parent and women's (but no men's), and Westminster University's "diversity committee" also contains a woman's officer but, again, no man's. In fact the only men's officer I have found so far is in the University of London Union, which covers the whole federal university - and, given the culture clashes, seems to have taken the obvious option of giving something to everyone.

Of course, there are problems faced by women and not by men, tensions related to being female in a mixed environment and, no doubt, some cases of sexism. But it is hard to believe, looking at universities today, that they disadvantage female students or that it makes sense to see being a woman as a critical, defining characteristic that calls for special treatment. What the Ann Summers parties do show, I think, is that, once you have started funding a special interest group, it is very hard to stop: which is a good reason not to start in the first place.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.

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