A policy to exclude union equality officers from much of their own equality conference if they do not have a protected characteristic has been branded “ridiculous” by a leading disability campaigner.
Emma-Jane Phillips, who sits on the University and College Union’s equality committee, said a rule requiring members to state whether they are gay, disabled or from an ethnic minority when applying to attend the union’s annual equality conference is wrong.
It means, in effect, that equality representatives elected by their union branch cannot participate in all discussions if they are white, male, straight and have no disability, said Ms Phillips, a senior lecturer in Northumbria University’s mathematics and information sciences department.
However, her motion to give equality reps the automatic right to attend conferences without having to self-identify was defeated at UCU’s congress, held in Liverpool from 1 to 3 June, the only motion not to pass during the summit’s opening day.
“Equality reps are passionate about equality regardless of their own situation,” Ms Phillips told Times Higher Education.
“To infer that someone does not understand someone’s situation just because you don’t tick a box is insulting,” she added.
Ms Phillips, who serves on UCU’s disabled members’ committee, said some equality reps would have to lie about having a protected characteristic to attend the conference – something they would not do, she believed.
“It is ridiculous that people who regard equality as their life can’t attend our equality conference,” she said.
However, Ciara Doyle, senior lecturer in youth and community studies at the University of Greenwich, told congress that she would not attend the conference if equality reps of all types were allowed to attend.
The conference’s breakout sessions are a unique “safe space” for those with various characteristics to talk openly about their situations, which might otherwise be dominated by those with no personal experience of these matters, she said.
“We see in the union movement that…some people’s voices are far louder than others,” she told THE.