Gender segregation allowed as long as it isn’t ‘forced’

Times Higher Education poll finds few bans in place as UUK guidance elicits criticism

December 5, 2013

Universities generally do not ban gender segregation at campus events, Times Higher Education has found.

THE asked 163 UK higher education institutions whether they allow gender-segregated events. Of the 46 that responded, 29 do not have prohibitions in place and of these, 23 say they do not have a policy on gender segregation.

The findings come after Universities UK issued guidance suggesting that meeting religious figures’ requests for gender-segregated seating with some audience partition would satisfy a “balance of interests” for all parties.

Any speaker with a “genuinely-held religious belief” who wants gender segregation for an event could have their freedom of speech “curtailed unlawfully” if non-segregation were allowed, warns External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions, issued on 22 November.

Of those universities that do not ban gender segregation, the responses differ widely.

A spokesman for Cardiff University says it judges each event on a “case-by-case basis”, while the University of Portsmouth says its students’ union “allows student groups choice over their event organisation and some segregated events have been held”.

Nine institutions say they do not permit gender segregation, but a further eight explain that they ban it only if it is “forced” or “compulsory”.

University College London, which earlier this year banned the Islamic Education and Research Academy from its premises after it allegedly organised a segregated event, explains that the “enforced” splitting-up of men and women, for example through pre-allocated seating, is “unacceptable”.

But it adds: “If individuals attending an event wish to segregate themselves on a voluntary basis, it is not acceptable for other members of the audience to compel them to mix, and to do so may constitute harassment.”

Flawed framework?

The UUK guidance has triggered scathing press criticism and the National Union of Students – which initially backed the document – later issued a statement saying that it would be “concerned about enforced segregation and certainly does not endorse it”.

The British Humanist Association has also condemned what it has called an “endorsement of gender segregation”. Pavan Dhaliwal, head of public affairs at the body, said that its president, Jim Al-Khalili, the broadcaster and University of Surrey physicist, had requested a meeting with UUK to discuss the issue.

She accused UUK of “misinterpreting” equalities law, adding: “It’s advocating gender segregation and putting the beliefs of the speaker above the rights of the participants.”

However, Nicola Dandridge, UUK’s chief executive, stressed to THE that the guidance was intended to clarify the legal framework rather than “take a position on the rights or wrongs of requests to segregate an event by gender”.

A spokesman for UUK added that the 17 organisations that had helped to draft the report, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Home Office and four universities, had seen the guidance before publication.

However, a Home Office spokesman said that it had not “signed off” the guidance and a BIS spokeswoman – when asked if the department had approved the document – simply said that BIS was happy with a clarifying blog by Ms Dandridge, which says the report “does not promote gender segregation”.

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