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Gender segregation on campus is unacceptable

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have today published new guidelines on gender segregation in meetings and events after Universities UK (UUK) were forced to pull guidance they had issued which endorsed gender segregation at university events.

The new guidance ‘Gender Segregation at Events and Meetings: Guidance for Universities and Student Unions’. The new guidelines clearly state ‘Universities and students’ unions must not knowingly facilitate discrimination by others at the request of an external speaker or an individual attending or wishing to attend an event’ The British Humanist Association(BHA) and National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) who condemned the UUK guidelines and submitted evidence to the EHRC have welcomed the EHRC guidelines as the correct and proper interpretation of the law.

In November 2013 Universities UK (UUK), the umbrella organisation for UK academic institutions published a report which endorsed gender segregation at university events. The report, entitled ‘External speakers in higher education institutions’, set out guidance for academic institutions for managing controversial visiting speakers. However, the report also stated that the segregation of the sexes at universities was not discriminatory as long as ‘both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.’ The new EHRC guidance which takes into account universities legal obligations to secure freedom of speech under both the Human Rights Act (Article 10) and the Education Act 1986

‘Students’ unions are obliged to protect freedom of speech under education law and act in accordance with anti-discrimination duties under equality law. These obligations apply to their activities on the premises they occupy permanently or temporarily within and outside the university establishment. These legal obligations are also likely to apply to activities carried out in premises otherwise unconnected with the students’ union or the university but which are occupied by associations affiliated to students’ unions. Students' unions maintain their own protocols and policies regarding meetings.

These protocols and policies will be aligned with those of the university and should include a system for monitoring planned speaker events with a view to identifying arrangements that may breach equality law through the imposition of segregated seating. In this context, students' unions may have overlapping responsibilities with those of the university, but the overlap does not preclude both organisations from potential liability under the Act.’

BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal commented that ‘We very much welcome the revised guidelines as a correct interpretation of the duties placed on Universities. They are secular institutions, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women.  It would be completely unacceptable if a visiting speaker tried to segregate an audience along racial lines, so sex segregation should be equally unacceptable.  Universities UK mistakenly characterised this as a freedom of speech issue, but this has rightly been found by the EHRC to be misleading.  A visiting speaker’s right to freedom of speech entitles them to express their political and religious views, but not to impose these views on the audience.’

Chris Malburn President of AHS commented ‘We are delighted that finally some sensible guidance has been published. It has been an ongoing battle to get the message across to UUK that Students have rights, their beliefs don't and the guidance that they issued was wrong and it set a dangerous precedent. Women are not second class citizens. We can only hope that now the National Union of Students, who both supported the segregation guidance and have refuse to condemn censorship in other issues will take note that we can and will stand up against religious privilege on campus.’

 



Notes

For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at pavan@humanism.org.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

BHA condemns Universities UK’s endorsement of gender segregation https://humanism.org.uk/2013/11/25/bha-condemns-universities-uks-endorsement-gender-segregation/

EHRC Guidance: Gender Segregation at Meetings and Events: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/Guidance%20for%20universities%20and%20students%20unions%2017-07-14.pdf

UUK Report – External speakers in higher education institutions: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/ExternalSpeakersInHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf

BBC News – Universities advised on managing radical speakers: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25051838

The Independent – Freedom of speech is not an ‘absolute’, university leaders warn: http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/freedom-of-speech-is-not-an-absolute-university-leaders-warn-8957899.html

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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