Sex quiz to prove fair play

April 29, 2005

Staff should divulge their sexual orientation and religious beliefs to help universities demonstrate that they do not discriminate against them, a conference will hear this week.

The equal opportunities research conference, organised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will showcase the findings of projects aimed at improving the working lives of staff in UKinstitutions.

Pamela Abbott of Glasgow Caledonian University and Roger Sapsford, of the Social Futures Institute at Teesside University surveyed all higher education institutions to find out if they collected information to monitor performance in six areas: gender, age, disability, ethnicity, religion and sexual preference or orientation.

The team found that institutions typically failed to record the religion and sexual orientation of their staff, leaving them open to charges of discrimination.

Dr Sapsford said: "If one wants to show that an institution is biased against lesbians or people from the West Indies, then statistics are better than just saying it - and if an institution wants to guard against that, then they need statistics, too.

"On the other hand, I am not willing to complete a form about things that are private and that I would not want an institution to hold information on."

Erica Halvorsen, deputy director of the Equality Challenge Unit, said higher education institutions must, by law, monitor staff on the grounds of race. But there is not yet a legal requirement to monitor staff on any other grounds.

She said: "While general best practice suggests that staff and potential staff should be monitored on the grounds of sexual orientation, experience has proven that staff and potential staff have been reluctant to declare their orientation because they are not convinced that the information will be kept confidential or that it is relevant.

"There is also suspicion that any declaration will result in prejudice or will not be used in a constructive way."

She added that before it was decided whether to monitor or not, it would be advisable to get the trade unions on board. She said: "If they support the process and aims of monitoring in the institution and encourage their members to participate, the exercise has much more chance of being meaningful.

"Proceeding to monitor in the face of union opposition would probably be counter-productive."

Other projects to be presented at the conference include an examination of what can be done to improve equality of opportunity for members of minority groups who may be unlikely to disclose their minority status or report incidences of discrimination. An international comparative study and comparisons of difference between the public and private sector will also be presented.

alison.goddard@thes.co.uk

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