The group representing vice-chancellors of universities in the UK has stated gender segregation at university events may be condoned, should a speaker request it.
In its recently published guideline for universities regarding external speakers in higher education institutions, Universities UK has followed a ‘separate but equal’ policy as regards the segregation of males and females in audiences at university events.
Within the report, it is stated that segregation would only be “discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.”
In a case-study in which a representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group is invited to speak at a university event and then insists that males and females be segregated, the report advises that segregation would be acceptable provided neither group is disadvantaged, such as placing females at the back where they would face certain restrictions i.e. the increased difficulty in being able to ask questions.
The report claims that “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.”
The report addresses the legal problems which universities face in accommodating the views of different groups.
It states that, “one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ 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 (e.g. 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.”
Although the report proposed that a non-segregated area should be made available alongside segregated seating, it advises that, should the speaker demand unsegregated seating not be an option on the basis of their religious beliefs, the university should still go ahead with the event with only segregated seating as to do otherwise may be seen as a breach of the Equality Act, which explicitly protects religious freedoms more so than ideological (i.e. feminist) freedoms.
It said, “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.”
Lizzie Bowen, a third year Classics and Ancient History student, said, “It’s 2013! I definitely wouldn’t go to an event if I had to sit in a separate seating area from guys. People can say ‘separate but equal isn’t discrimination’ but everyone knows that you don’t demand separation unless you favour one side”.
To see the full report, visit: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/ExternalSpeakersInHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf
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