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.

6 thoughts on “On Universities UK’s endorsement of sex segregation on campus

  1. Could not believe the machinations of the given ruling; I would put money on ‘them’ being mostly men. Hey guys, the simple answer is “No”.
    Nice fodder for the EDL over their accusations of “islamification”; reported pressure to conform on muslim women; an erasing of LGBTiQ folk; retrograde sexist garbage…and my own personal red-line.
    Your own so-called ‘choice’ when attending religious establishments or segregate yourself if you really want to, fine, but as an imposition in a University; I honestly thought it was a ‘daily mash-type’ joke. My Gran would be turning in her grave.
    ‘Furious of Norwich’!

  2. …And another thing 😉
    On a serious note, I also wonder what century we’re living in when a man thinks it’s ok to even request segregation for a talk at a university.

  3. Of course it is not an Islam only issue, I can easily see an ultra-Orthodox rabbi coming up with same demand. But the mere fact that the issue is being seriously discussed and (quite crudely) sidetracked into ‘less favourable treatment’ crapola makes one’s blood boil. I would say tell this hypothetical speaker to take his speech and to stick it. But I am not a politico…

    Er… and I am not sure that the whole idea is concocted solely by men. Too refined too my taste 😉

  4. Pingback: Novedades Internacionales sobre Libertad Religiosa y Trato Igualitario » Cátedra Extraordinaria Benito Juárez

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