On Universities UK’s endorsement of sex segregation on campus

In a recent piece of guidance to UK universities on external speakers, Universities UK has taken the step of endorsing sex segregation on campus. UUK is a professional organisation of university leaders which aspires to “a definitive voice” and “high quality leadership” – in other words, an organisation to be taken seriously. Its rationale here is a concern that historically marginalised groups – religious conservatives, women especially – be included in campus life and that campus events fall within the law. Although I am myself a secularist atheist and increasingly worried about religion in global public life, I find these worthwhile concerns. I’d defend the right to religious confession as long as it doesn’t harm others – but I do want university campuses to be secular spaces since I feel that secular spaces promise the most respect to the fullest range of beliefs. I’m not a stranger to sex segregation myself having experienced it in religious settings during childhood – and I’m not an authority either. For ethical reasons I am unwilling to attend sexually segregated events.

So what do I think is wrong with sex segregation?

  1. It is sexist – literally, it distinguishes between and separates human beings in social situations on grounds of sex. It singles out sex as a major societal schism. Sexism is generally thought incompatible with equality for the same reason that ‘separate but equal’ is history in Louisiana.
  2. Segregation sexualises our campuses – it treats sexual difference as if it were a threat to our ability to participate in academic pursuits. This sex on the brain constitutes a disruptive frisson. I find it prurient and it makes me very uncomfortable.
  3. Sex segregation ghosts out men who are sexually attracted to men and women who are sexually attracted to women, along with people who are transgender or unsure of their gender. This is because the religious ultra-orthodox have a track record of excluding these people. Sex segregation unrecognises them and signals that they are persona non grata.
  4. Formerly secular Turkey is further down the religious segregation road – it is ending mixed sex university residences. We should view UUK’s seemingly modest and liberal request for a small acts of segregation on demand in this context, among others. A precedent is being set which gives a foothold to ultra-orthodox religion. Not all religious adherents are proselytising – but the majority are. I tend to see this Universities UK approval as a crack which will widen.
  5. As the minority South African government did before the end of apartheid and as the US white majority government did before the end of segregation, Universities UK is saying that it doesn’t matter as long as the segregation happens on equal terms. But as any Equal Opportunities policy will tell you (and by the way, I scored a perfect score first time in my own institution’s induction test) you can’t bring about equality simply by treating everybody the same.
  6. Segregation of equal groups doesn’t happen. Segregation only happens if one group imposes it on another from a position of superiority and power. Here it is religious men, often endorsed by domesticated women who have internalised their oppression or who care little about women’s long struggle against their historic marginalisation. We know that women need more encouragement and stronger expectations that they will become independent parts of a historically male academic world and take their place side by side with men. I’d expect segregation to be counterproductive to this. Perhaps the thing that I find most upsetting about this Universities UK recommendation is that there leaping out at me on page 27 is the word feminism, in inverted commas.
  7. Segregation creates distance and barriers. It interferes with mutual understanding between the separated groups.
  8. Segregation exerts powerful internalising force. Young people growing up in it feel themselves to be fundamentally different. And when they grow up and become women whose role is dependent and men whose role is independent, they feel it is sex which dictates this, not society. This is how segregation leads to inequality.
  9. We live in a world where some women are brutally punished or even killed for failing to observe the dictats of religious modesty. This world is not so far away for many of the people directly affected by this endorsement. When segregation is institutionalised as Universities UK is proposing, it’s questionable whether it can be voluntary. I’d imagine that the pressure to perform religious modesty would make it harder to choose the mixed seating over the segregated seating.

As such I can’t see how a ‘balance of interests’ can be achieved by offering some segregated and some mixed seating. I can’t see how it is compatible with the equality agenda I support, and I think the events which demand it should take place elsewhere in private spaces.

I think Universities UK has performed a rush to the middle ground between what they correctly identify as vying interests – feminism and ultra-orthodoxy – which has only served to shift the ground in favour of those who traditionally marginalise women. This is retrograde and a profound disappointment to me. I don’t want to lose sight of the need to welcome conservative religious students and staff onto campus, but in accomplishing this we should rule out sex segregation. In short, as a cure for exclusion, sex segregation would be worse than the disease.

There’s a petition you can sign and it’s definitely worth writing to Universities UK on your own behalf.

Update – more comment

For the record here’s what Universities UK recommends: (Case Study 2, p29, my emphases).


A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion. The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender. The event organiser has followed agreed processes and raised the issue with university management. The event has been widely advertised and interest levels are high. The segregation request is not yet in the public domain but the students’ union has an active feminist society which is likely to protest against the segregation request. Other societies are likely to express similar concerns. The event is also due to take place a few days after a number of campus-based activities to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Things to consider

Legal framework – points likely to be particularly relevant

Aside from freedom of speech and the s.43 duty, the paramount issue is to consider how equality obligations apply, and how those interact.

  • For example, under the Equality Act 2010, the first question is whether the segregation is discriminatory on the grounds of a protected characteristic within the definition of the Act. Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.
  • It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider the seating plan for any segregation. For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities).
  • Consideration will also need to be given to whether imposing segregation on everyone attending the event is required (see below). If it is required, this may amount to less favourable treatment of other attendees because of a protected characteristic. On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing in mind the views of the feminist society referred to in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, could fall within the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act. This would in turn mean that applying a segregated seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a nonsegregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’ basis with the gender segregated areas) might be discriminatory against those (men or women) who hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling. Further, an act of indirect discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, meaning the institution should also have regard to its other obligations under the Equality Act and the s.43 duty to secure freedom of speech, for example.
  • It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of the s.43 duty, 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. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution to secure freedom of speech within the law.
  • The institution will also need to have due regard to its Public Sector Equality Duty obligations when making decisions about the event.
  • In practice, a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas, although if the speaker is unwilling to accept this, the institution will need to consider the speaker’s reasons under equalities legislation.
  • Note that decisions can be very fact-dependent, and that the law applies differently in different scenarios. For example, there is an express prohibition in the Equality Act against segregation on racial grounds, and there are also special provisions in relation to single-sex sporting events. The points above are not intended as a substitute for seeking appropriate legal advice.

Other practical considerations

  • Who is chairing the event?
  • What is known about the speaker?
  • What reasons do the speaker and/or the society give for the event to be segregated?
  • Is the event open to the public? 
  • Is there scope for segregation to be voluntary/optional?
  • Has input been sought from the institution’s equality and diversity officer?
  • Is it advisable to obtain legal advice, and/or to seek advice from the Equality Challenge Unit?
  • Can any steps be taken to ensure segregation is voluntary?
  • If no segregation is permitted, will this discriminate against any groups who will now be unable to attend the event?
  • Are there particular issues around potential discrimination, public order etc, including because of the particular demographic/religious/cultural makeup of the institution’s student body?
  • Is the event likely to generate media coverage? Do the press office and senior management team or vice-chancellor need to be informed? Decisions may need to be re-evaluated during the process of considering the proposed event. For example, if the speaker is unwilling to speak unless the event is fully segregated, it may be necessary to further explore the basis for his position before deciding whether a partially segregated event is a possibility.

Lives of their own to live

I watched a Timeshift documentary on BBC4 called ‘A Day at the Zoo‘. The experts commented lightheartedly on the early days of zoos, when you could hire a stick to prod the animals to make them do something of interest, when they used to feed them rum and buns, and when they used to live out their days behind bars in small concrete enclosures. Gerald Durrell used to procure for these zoos, but he soon noticed that the animals were dying and the zoos considered them replaceable commodities. So he stopped providing for them and instead changed the paradigm with his conservation zoo in Jersey. The punters began to feel uncomfortable with animals behind bars and the safari park was born. It then took a further while for people to cotton onto the fact that animal welfare isn’t all about space, and space can be territory which feels invaded when a bunch of cars drive through it. Andy Hall, the documentary’s director, gave the briefest possible airtime to Liz Tyson, director of the Captive Animals Protection Society. She was the only critic of zoos.

I’ll give her a bit more attention. If you wouldn’t visit a live animal circus, then don’t visit a live animal event this Christmas. And that goes for Ilford which has reindeer and penguins. So pledge not to visit any live animal events this Christmas time.

In today’s Metro was a feature on the loneliness of older people. The older I get the more conscious I become that society is organised around a productive workforce which, if not exactly valorised, is central and provided for first and foremost. The Equalities Act is a triumph of accessibility but it can’t in itself nourish the soul. Alert to animals in the media, I noticed a paragraph about a charity which brings dogs into contact with people with severely limiting conditions who live in care homes – this jumped out:

“She added: ‘The general public often shy away from the unattractive sight of old age and all that it brings. The dogs don’t mind what you look like, what you smell like, if you can speak to them or not, or if your hands don’t work properly.’”

This really confused me. As a surrogate for human contact it would be terribly sad. And I don’t get it – children foul themselves and are incompetent. Dogs themselves smell awful and like rolling in crap. What is going on here? That said, who wouldn’t want to cuddle with any friendly mammal, just for its own sake? But if I were older and alone this Christmas I’d prefer to go to Cafe 104 in Barkingside for Christmas cheer, laid on for me, for free. How generous. And they’ve always been vegan-friendly to me.


This is installment #14 of my ‘daily’ blogpost for World Vegan Month. In search of the winning formula I’ve departed from sections Consumption, Animals in the Media (formerly ‘News’), and Encounters – but how about I just do a quick recap.

Encounters. I was unsurprised that the Hamas has acquired a couple of trophy lion cubs and named them after things that kill Israelis. Pathetic. In other news mice have made a home on my floor, which is quite impressive given that hardly any of the building is in contact with the ground. Half the office is concerned about ‘infestation’ and ‘vermin’ and the other half is making trade unionist quips about their core hours of work and the need to use the bookable space system. I am trying to drop fewer crumbs, to make the place less attractive as a habitat.

Animals in the media. See above.

Consumption. Yesterday at Kings College London I had 6 bourbon creams followed by a lunch of crudites, houmous, pitta and olives in their own herbed oil. Just what I needed. And fruit. For breakfast I’d had a banana from M&S in Chancery Lane for 13p – I’d have paid more for Fairtrade. For dinner a Goodlife nut cutlet, red onion gravy with aforementioned freegan denatured seasoned cooking wine out of a box, carrots, frozen beans, frozen peas and small knobbly potatoes. More of the same for lunch today, packed up. And for breakfast I’m onto a new kilo of Sainsbury’s Fruit & Fibre, mixed with Co-op Maple and Pecan crunch cereal, which has become vegan. Then I accidentally ate a large bag of Co-op salt & vinegar chipsticks so dinner was a quarter of a cabbage, a carrot – both steamed – and a nut cutlet – no potatoes. Then some Green & Black lemon chocolate. I think it’s the cold. Tomorrow will be Vegetarian Choice sausages with more cabbage, carrot and potatoes. No time to chef it up – it’s tasty as it is, anyway.

Trade Union solidarity


I’m sure that you know, as I do, at least one trade union member who could stand to learn a little bit more about Israel and Palestine.

That person could be working at the desk next to you. Or it could be the president of your union.

If we are to effectively counter anti-Israel propaganda — and the growth of anti-semitism in the trade union movement — we need to get the widest possible distribution for the real news coming out of the region.

In the last month, TULIP’s website has told the story about the militant struggle being waged by Israeli workers — a struggle that is resulting in big union organizing wins that are hardly known outside the country. Here are some of the stories we ran in the last few weeks:

Meanwhile, our opponents keep saying that the campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions targetting the Jewish state is unstoppable, that unions everywhere are joining in, and so on. But TULIP is reporting that actually the trade union movement is deeply divided. Here are some of the stories we ran in the last month:

In other words — Israel has a vibrant, independent trade union movement that deserves the solidarity of trade unionists everywhere.

And in the international labour movement, a struggle is taking place between those like the German trade union leader Michael Sommer, a strong supporter of Israel, and South Africa’s Bongani Masuku, convicted of hate speech and yet still a spokesperson for COSATU.

For our side — those who support genuine peace and reconciliation based on a two-state solution — to win, we must get our message out to many more people.

Please forward this email on to trade unionists you know who need to be better informed.

Let’s try to change at least one mind.

Encourage people to sign up to join the TULIP mailing list at http://www.tuliponline.org/?page_id=4212 and to like TULIP on Facebook.

World Vegan Month #13

I’m hardly deluged with reader requests for the continuation of my ‘daily’ blogging for World Vegan Month under the sections Consumption, Animals in the News, and Encounters. Perhaps they aren’t very good. Well, it’s almost always late when I write them.

What I ate today (formerly ‘Consumption’)

  • Breakfast – Sainsbury’s Fruit & Fibre (see previous days with exception of #12)
  • Lunch – a packed lunch of houmous and salad baguette.
  • Snack –  Cofresh Quinoa crisps in cream cheese and chive flavour (the price of these varies according the the profit margins of the vendor, but they really aren’t cheap – I was at a low ebb)
  • Dinner – roast squash, roast cauliflour, roast onions, baked potato and some Fry’s vegan polony, fried. Well, toasted, really (it’s made of wheat protein aka gluten. Very partial to this but best consumed in moderation. It took me two guests on the Moral Maze to slice it in half from frozen.)

Animals in the news

I didn’t read the news today. In the morning I read an article about the importance of sleep, which made me feel sleepy. In the evening My bottle leaked in my bag so I put the free paper in there to soak up the water.

A light hearted report from the Daily Mail, who have for some reason turned their attention to up state New York. Woman called Daisy Cowit crashed her jeep into a herd of cows. She was texting and “seemed indignant about the fuss being made over the animals”.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance suggested saving money by replacing lawnmowers with ruminants, but Unite (the union) say that urban rustlers could spring up.

Animal encounters

On my way through a certain square every morning I encounter a dog who’s a real character. It – he, I’ll say – is very old, grey muzzle and chest. He never acknowledges me because it’s all about his ball. His owner, a mature woman always sits on the same bench. She usually has a hand outstretched while the dog jaws the ball just out of reach. He nudges it towards her (never quite within convenient reach) but grabs it back a few times before she can pick it up. Eventually he lets her take it, then she holds it in front of his nose and moves it up, then down, then one side, then the other. The dog is avid. Then some tens of seconds later she throws it. He leaps off and retrieves it. As soon as he grabs it, his demeanour changes – it becomes clear that he is decrepit and rickety. He makes his way back to her stiffly and haltingly. Then he reaches her, and immediately seems once again to forget the pain. The power of that ball – it’s unbelievable.

Now my English San Francisco dwelling friend Muteboy is chatting me – what a lovely thing! Not this mute boy, though.

World Vegan Month #12

After a barely avoidable hiatus I resume my ‘daily’ blogging for World Vegan Month under the sections Consumption, Animals in the News, and Encounters. Got some catching up to do. Thankfully I started in October so perhaps it’s the other way round.


  • Breakfast – in a hotel! Three hash browns, baked beans, toast, half a tomato – skipped the weird hotel boiled mushrooms. Tinned prunes, berries, mandarin. Fresh melon. Black coffee.
  • Lunch – in a conference centre! Crudites, houmous, guacamole, salsa. Pre-arranged chilli and rice. Pineapple, melon. Tea.
  • Snack – boiled sweets.
  • Dinner – Linda McCartney pie with carrots, courgette, swede, broccoli and red wine gravy from the aforementioned large left-over box of ‘seasoned’ partially denatured cooking wine. Mmmm.

Animals in the news

My notes from the ridiculous free tube papers:

  • Blind chicken was saved from drowning by its keeper in the USA. In other news, a million chickens die each hour. In the USA alone.
  • Or to put it another way, http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/slaughter
  • A bit of cryptozoology the Metro purloined from the National Geographic – Big Foot is apparently just an old kind of polar bear.
  • It’s well known that some of the world’s major psychopaths were artists. Thing Egon Schiller nearly being Hitler’s room mate at the Frankfurt School. Lady Gaga is a chillingly callous fur wearer. In her defence she cites the meat dress she once wore. She says, “You see a carcass, I see a museum pièce de résistance.” Somehow you see a Gaga, I see Elena Ceausescu.
  • I was cheered to read that in Mexico a sealion took a trophy fish off some men who were holding it up for a camera.
  • The crime prevention minister is consulting on putting savage dog owners in prison. Guide dog owners in particular (their dogs are conditioned to act in a way other dogs can find too odd to cope with – Matt and I know from our travels dogs are some of the most prejudiced beings in existence) will be grateful for this.
  • Somebody proposed to a dolphin. No, got that slightly wrong.
  • A young seahorse is lovingly raised in London’s Sealife aquarium
  • The Queen visits Brixton’s Ebony Horse Club the unintended consequence of which is to teach poor people how to exploit animals for recreation.
  • An the slightly better Guardian reports that apparently fish pedicures are on the back foot because of animal welfare concerns.


  • Somebody brought an Old English Sheepdog puppy into the quiet carriage and s/he was quieter than the people.
  • There are mice in my office. Because there are crumbs in my office. So they put out mouse traps – the bit of Central London where I work is full of mouse traps and rat traps. Feckless people drop food and the rodents come to take it. Then for some reason we treat the rodents as if they were the rubbish. We disgust me.
  • I’m not aware of any other encounters – this is awful. It means humans aren’t sharing the space with animals ethically. Seriously, we are disgusting to the animals. We are collectively barbarians who do violence to the term ‘human’. All of which is perfectly legal and normal. This isn’t misanthropic to acknowledge – it’s a necessary precursor to change.