UK University debates, when gender segregation is OK?

Get real UK Universities

Universities UK have issued some guidance on separating genders during debate,* apparently it is OK if the facilities are separate but equal. Women can be placed separately from men as long as they aren’t seated behind. Because in some sort of alternate reality this is perfectly acceptable equality. Separate but equal.
And where have we heard that nonsense before?

Life is complicated. To segregate or not to segregate based gender, race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, or whatever discriminatory category you choose to pick is not, however, a complex issue. In fact it is pretty straightforward if you are a public body in a democratic society, you don’t do it.

Apparently this is quite a difficult concept for Universities UK, who have magically transported themselves back to mentality of lawmakers in the US South in the 1870s. They have also managed to forget the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education where the US Supreme Court deemed that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” (the UK never had such policies).

According to the illustrious UK university leaders, however, this is a really difficult issue viz

Segregation at the behest of a controversial speaker is an issue which arises “all the time” and banning men and women from sitting next to each during debates is a “big issue” facing universities, Universities UK has said.

How on earth can this possibly be a ‘big issue’ ? If the speaker requests that genders (or whoever) should be separated, the answer should be a polite, respectable, PR-compliant form of ‘tough shit’. This is not a hard issue. You don’t do it. Full stop. End of. And please don’t try to couch it as some sort of difficult, soul-searching issue. It isn’t. Segregation is not acceptable, don’t do it.

I ask the leaders of Universities UK, what kind of message does this send? Universities should be the place where ideas are discussed, equality is striven for, openness and debate are applauded, exemplifying the epitome of a free society. Granted this is the ideal, but any University policy should uphold this ideal. You can’t just change your policy because someone *important* requests it. By this guidance, Universities UK give the message that discrimination is OK, if you are famous/important that is, otherwise Universities really should be against this sort of thing.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee (USA). During my time there, every Summer the university was ‘rented’ as a convention venue by one of the very-conservative-religious groups from somewhere in Tennessee. They paid a fair amount of money to use the place. One summer, this convention happened to coincide with the university art-school exhibit of nudes, which was displayed prominently in the student center. The head of the very-conservative-religious group went to the President of the university to complain and have the art removed. The President said, in a decision that surprised all of us who were convinced the Uni was just money hungry, NO. In no uncertain terms, no.

If you ask me, the ‘leaders’ of Universities UK might just learn a thing or two from old Joseph E. Johnson, who knew how to draw the line between the requests of the few vs. the rights of many. No matter how rich, important or controversial they may be.

*I have linked to a Telegraph article above, but here is a link to the actual advice from UK Universities – see page 27 – Thanks to Ian Hopkinson and Bob O’Hara for pointing this out.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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31 Responses to UK University debates, when gender segregation is OK?

  1. cromercrox says:

    Let’s not tiptoe around this particular sequestered pachyderm. We are talking about Islam here, whose dicates require that women and men are separate in particular social circumstances. This varies between different sorts of Islam, and between different countries – standards of behaviour are different in Turkey, say, from Saudi Arabia. I guess that segregation within mosques is OK, given that everyone inside a mosque expects it (the same is true in any synagogue that isn’t Progressive). On the other hand, Judaism suggests that Jews in someone else’s country should adopt the law of the land, and I believe (though I do not know for certain) that Islam maintains the same. In which case segregation outside a mosque might even be un-Islamic and in any case shouldn’t be permitted under the law of the land. People should be able to sit where they like. Universities are perhaps over-sensitive to complaints from Islamic students over perceived incidents of offence. They should toughen up.

    • Rule of thumb – any time you can do an isomorphic replacement – it’s probably a bad idea for policy/equality/discrimination. For instance if we had a Neo-Nazi speaker who requested segregation – would we tolerate that ? FYI I wasn’t particularly talking about religion … it could be anything –

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    It is a great mistake to capitulate to such demands in the name of “respecting one’s beliefs” and so on. With such issues there can be no ‘compromise,’ because any compromise of the basic democratic values of equality are perceived as the tip of the iceberg for those demanding the segregation. All in the name of their own ‘values’ (almost inevitably, religious, but as Sylvia points out, could just as easily be purely racist based on skin color or ethnicity).

    Israel, for example, is plagued with such issues. Ultra-orthodox Jews are demanding that men and women walk on different sides of the streets in Jerusalem, and that there be separate lines for the trains to promote ‘modesty.’ Even in the mandatory people’s army, there are calls that women not be allowed to sing in any ceremonies, etc., so as not to impact the sensitivities of religious groups.

    As you nicely illustrate, these are simply attempts to relegate/maintain women as second class citizens, and of all institutions, universities need to lead the way in saying “NO!” to this blatant attempt a discrimination.

  3. mavan says:

    Where do you stand on Universities organising female-only training courses? Such as this:

    • I think all people should have training courses – not just women alone. Also it is the University that does the promoting – so isn’t it up to them to promote women ? … things like this always make me nervous because they imply it is the woman’s fault she is not promoted – not the promoters … but training courses for leadership/etc are good, in my opinion but they must be offered to all …

      • Karen Kruzycka says:

        I’ve been to female-only training courses, and the reason they were needed is because of under-representation and under-promotion of women. They were designed to address a real, specific need of a minority group. You can’t possibly think that’s problematic, can you? Or think that it’s comparable to religious fundamentalists wishing to segregate the audience by sex?

        The sort of thing covered in these courses was how to make oneself heard in meetings which are full of men who have a tendency to talk over and ignore women. In your utopia, where men would’ve been allowed into that training session, I guarantee that many women, including me, would have felt uncomfortable. I would probably have left.

        But if it’s a course for women, I hear you ask, what sort of man would want to attend? And the answer is: an MRA. Because they love disrupting anything that might threaten their position of power. Let’s not help them, eh?

        • rpg says:

          I really need to implement a ‘like’ button for comments on this blog.

        • that wasn’t what I said…
          I said that all people should have training courses … not just women, men should have them too. If you have women’s issues (or men’s for that matter) that are distinct that is a different issue than this – clearly

        • John Smith says:

          This is exactly “comparable to religious fundamentalists wishing to segregate the audience by sex”. When I last checked, discrimination on the grounds of gender was illegal in the UK.

  4. Panagrellus says:

    I wonder what would happen if parts of the audience just do not play by the rules and sit wherever they want. Women on the men’s side, men on the women’s side of the lecture hall.

    Will they be removed by force? Will police be called because of students sitting on forbidden chairs?

    And what to do about students with a transgender identity? Will medical personnel be at hand to undertake ad-hoc gender tests, to advise on the appropriate chair?

    Yes, that’s absurd. As absurd as University UK’s document.

  5. Very well said. When UUK does emerge from its customary passivity its decisions are too often wrong. This time it is disastrously wrong.

    • the thing I find so weird about it – is how they say it’s such a difficult issue (obviously from my post) how on earth can it be ?

      • cromercrox says:

        You’re right. It is not a difficult issue. Sex discrimination is against the law, no matter whether the segregated sexes sit one behind the other, or side by side. In my view the university should make this very clear to any organization convening on its premises. If the organisers are students, the relevant branch of the students’ union should force the student society, if affiliated to the union, to play by the rules or have its funding removed. if all else fails this should be a police matter – there should be no no-go areas..

  6. John says:

    Panagrellus, when people have tried to sit where they wish security have tried to physically remove them from the event!

  7. Sam Peacock says:

    What astonishes me is that entire rooms full of people would be willing to accept the requirement to segregate. If I went to a debate and was asked to sit separately from my female friends, I would have stern words to say to the organisers (and possibly even the compliant members of the audience, if I was feeling brave), and storm out. Who are these attendees who are willing to go along with such prejudiced and disrespectful demands?

  8. Trofim says:

    * Teams of Sex Apartheid Busters are being organised to break segregation
    wherever it is instituted. To join, email [email protected].

  9. Michael Taggart says:

    The are two issues troubling UUK that makes them turn away from your sentiment of: “In fact it is pretty straightforward if you are a public body in a democratic society, you don’t do it.”. First, it’s about money. Second, encouraged by this and previous governments, a university hardly considers itself any more to be “a public body”. In government circles you can often hear the term “autonomous institutions”. It’s a continuation of the theme of the decade “we’re skint so will have to take anyone’s money”. Yet, there are no pragmatic considerations that justify bowling over to this. It’s up there with school academy sponsors insisting on creationism being taught as part of the curriculum.

  10. Anonymous Coward says:

    They have also managed to forget the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education where the US Supreme Court deemed that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

    Well yes, why would they remember a supreme court ruling from some other country? Do you remember the details of Lustig-Prean and Beckett v United Kingdom? How about Stedman v United Kingdom? You don’t? Why not?

    • The civil rights movement in the US is pretty famous in modern times which shows the fallacy of “separate but equal”

      – so maybe no they don’t remember the case itself (artistic license on my part) but not sure how they could have missed the sentiment of this …

      I know about the Dreyfus affair (though I am not French)
      I know about the Poll tax riots (though I am not British)

      Do you really think that the people making these (legal) advising documents wouldn’t know about the (recent) history of discrimination in the Western World?

  11. Please leave a comment on the UUK blog

    I have yet to hear a single person support their pathetic document.

  12. Oooh I have – The Conversation asked me to write a piece for them about this issue –
    here is the link, check out the comments –
    I have been accused of sophistry and being simplistic – can you be both?

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