Separating values?

There are times when, I suspect, we all regret initiating some discussion or other which goes off in an unexpected direction and causes us grief. This, I imagine, is how Universities UK (of which all British universities are members) feel about the advice they recently offered on gender segregation at meetings on university premises. This was contained in a larger document which was about handling external speakers. The document contained a case study, based on a hypothetical event at which the speakers are debating different approaches to religion, where one of the speakers has ‘made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender’. The Universities UK document then set out the legal and practical issues, focusing both on freedom of speech and religious rights, and concluded:

‘It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of [statutory duties], as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.’

While it might be suggested that this conclusion was somewhat opaque, it appeared to offer the advice that, in such circumstances, providing for gender-segregated audiences might be within the law, or indeed might be required by law.

Most documents issued by university umbrella bodies do not attract much public attention, but this one was an exception. A firestorm broke out, with newspapers and other media severely criticising Universities UK, and with student protests outside their offices. There were also reports alleging that segregated meetings has taken place on university campuses. The British Prime Minister also weighed in and, according to a news agency report, indicated that arranging gender-segregated audiences was not acceptable in the UK. A similar view was expressed by the Labour Party’s Shadow Business Secretary.

In the face of this onslaught, Universities UK decided to withdraw its advice pending a review of the issue with the help of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and senior lawyers.

So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how should universities handle the complexities of multi-cultural concerns? Gender equality is one of the most basic requirements of a modern liberal society; so can this be legitimately qualified if a particular religious group rejects it and insists on its right to treat men and women differently? Would we accept it if this religious group were a Christian church?

Not everyone has backed the criticism of the Universities UK document. Writing on the website Huffington Post, the journalist Alastair Sloan suggested:

‘It is not acceptable to demand that a group of consenting adults cannot organise themselves by gender, if they see fit. It is of no business to feminists to be threatening to break up Islamic meetings – unless they are happy to be labelled religious persecutors.’

It is of course clear that universities must be open to and welcome and support people from many different cultures and countries. So for example, universities need to get better at recognising that a bars-and-alcohol leisure culture will seem hostile to many coming here from overseas, and that alternatives should be available. But equally it seems right that universities should protect liberal values of equal rights and opportunities, and that compromises around these values are wrong. The idea of ‘separate but equal’, which in theory underpinned apartheid (in practice there was little equality), has been wholly rejected, and should not be allowed to make a come-back in the context of gender. In many ways, it is reassuring that this was the strong near-consensus reaction to the Universities UK document.

I have a lot of sympathy for Universities UK in all this, as their intention was simply to offer dispassionate legal advice; but sometimes the strict legal position is not helpful. This was one of those times.

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7 Comments on “Separating values?”

  1. no-name Says:

    Segregation by gender appears to be odious only when proposed by others; it is typically argued necessary when condoned by one’s own group. Hence, male-only sports leagues, postgraduate courses titled, “Women’s Studies”, and so on, proliferate.

  2. V.H Says:

    If a lecture was being given at one of the Inns of court. This meeting wouldn’t be public in any meaning of that word. But can you see that little lot being tolerant of any segregation beyond membership of the Inns and that has been dreamt up to suit an outsider.
    Why then is any meeting within the walls of a university public. While the question of segregation, and the university’s ability to exercise such upon and within the body. Well it rather depends. I doubt anyone would be over bothered if a meeting filled from the first years to you. And in truth, no one truly cares that the women’s colleges exist in Oxbridge, and elsewhere perhaps. But no one could say Mary Beard should be placed outside because of her position as a fellow of Newnham.
    But lets face it. Free speech (mind you I expect there was nowt free in this talk) is a function of sound which by it’s very nature is broadcast. Ergo, if a person rendering a talk intramural has a problem, then hand them a blindfold. Better that the earlier solution should the eyes offend.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    *The idea of ‘separate but equal’, which in theory underpinned apartheid (in practice there was little equality), has been wholly rejected, and should not be allowed to make a come-back in the context of gender. In many ways, it is reassuring that this was the strong near-consensus reaction to the Universities UK document.*

    By the same token it is not at all reassuring that Universities UK issued the document in the first place, the problem was precisely the ‘dispassionate’ nature of the legal advice provided, in fact one could call into question the legitimacy of the same *ideal* of the dispassionate law which can turn into a barrier (as in this case) to achieving the flexibility necessary for adaptive regulation. As the post rightly argues ‘sometimes the strict legal position is not helpful’, I would add that the *strictly* legal position is rarely helpful, it can only work in conjunction with cultural considerations and sensitivities, on its own it is just the symptom of a lame, excessively cautionary, over-regulated academia.

    As for the question: “Would we accept it if this religious group were a Christian church?” The answer is obviously no, gender segregation would be equally unacceptable no matter the religious denomination. Segregation by gender is not odious only when proposed by others, as argued above but in any case, the use of the term ‘segregation’ for academic disciplines like ‘women’s studies’ is ludicrous.

  4. The simple answer that any university should be giving to an external speaker who requests segregation is this:

    “Segregation equals discrimination, and discrimination is against the law in the UK. Therefore you are not welcome to speak at our university”.

    Why is this concept so difficult for people to grasp? This hypothetical case study would never have been discussed if it had been about racial segregation.

    Misogynists and religious extremists must not be allowed to hide behind their “religious beliefs” and their intolerance of women. Gender apartheid must not be tolerated by a democracy.

  5. Vic Says:

    “Gender apartheid must not be tolerated by a democracy.”

    You’re right. All toilets which are for women only should be merged with the men’s, out with maternity wards, no more courses specilizing in midwifery, ban the BBC’s ‘Women’s Hour’, all of the country’s “men at work” road signs should be changed immediately to “people at work”, no more ladies’ day at the swimming pool and sauna, department stores should not be allowed to divide the shop into ‘men’s’ and ‘ladies” sections, no more convent and CBS schools, no more nuns, no more priests, no more Bundesliga and Champion’s League as is, no more ‘girls enter free’ at discos, the AARP women’s scholarship should be cancelled, also Google’s Anita Borg scholarship, ditto the Amelia Earhart scholarship, no more stag nights, no more hen nights, security men should be allowed to body search women at the airport and vice versa, no more of men holding doors or offering seats to ladies, no more Well Woman clinics, no more affirmative action, close down all women’s refuges, merge all men and women’s changing rooms, shut down the women’s pink taxi company, no more books on men’s health or women’s health only, female and male underwear must be redesigned to be equal, women must race men in the Olympics, men must be able to apply for the job to advertise tampons and be taken seriously and treated with respect. Is that what you had in mind?

  6. Vic Says:

    Sorry, I didn’t know that women were allowed to play for Manchester United but choose not to, or that men can choose to undress in a women’s changing room at a pool and not be arrested.

    The latter is an enforced seperation and one that appears to be enjoyed by men and women alike in our democracy.

    Condeming all forms of enforced seperation is naive, especially when those who condemn enjoy the various consequences of the policy, e.g., men only sports leagues, women only scholarship funding, and so on.

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