FWSA responds to the recent Universities UK report which advises higher education institutions to permit gender segregated seating (if the room can be segregated left and right) on the grounds of external speakers’ religious beliefs.
The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association condemns the recent guidance on external speakers and the issue of gender segregation released by Universities UK. We believe this guidance is poorly conceived and will serve only to reinforce the already marginalised position of women in universities. The depressing truth is that women continue to experience prejudice and discrimination on university campuses. Women are underrepresented at professorial and senior management levels within universities, while female students continue to be victimised as a result of a ‘Lad culture’ that condones sexual harassment and assault.
Protections for freedom of speech do not entitle institutions to instigate policies which actively discriminate against already marginalised groups. As secular, state-funded institutions universities have a responsibility to prevent discrimination, victimisation and harassment, yet by privileging the wishes of religious and political speakers over the wider rights of women they fail in this fundamental duty.
Universities would rightly be condemned for promoting segregation on the grounds of race, sexuality or disability and so the sole exception of segregation on the basis of gender cannot be tolerated. The guidance encourages universities to “be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully” but demonstrates no concern to protect the rights of those who would be excluded from such events because they do not wish to be discriminated against. Nor does the guidance suggest how institutions should respond to students, staff or members of the public who refuse to comply with segregated seating.
The act of gender segregation sends a very clear message about the status of women and this is not negated by the proposed ‘compromise’ of left-right segregation. ‘Different but equal’ is a premise that has long been used to justify the exclusion of women from public life and which obscures very real structural issues of capitalism and patriarchy. This is the same argument used this week by UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew to explain that women’s absence from top jobs results not from institutional sexism, workplace discrimination and an absence of adequate childcare but from a ‘lack of ambition’.
As such we call on Universities UK to withdraw their guidance and instead to condemn any policies of gender segregation that serve to further marginalise women in universities.
The FWSA is very interested in members’ reactions to Universities UK’s decision and our response. This is an open debate and we welcome further comment on this issue.
 UCU report on The position of women and BME staff in professorial roles in UK HEIs https://workspace.imperial.ac.uk/equality/Public/Gender/Position%20of%20women%20and%20BME%20staff%20in%20professorial%20roles%20in%20UK%20HEIs%20Jan%202013.pdf
 Recent NUS research has highlighted a prevailing culture of sexism and harassment on university campuses which specifically targets women and which contributes to negative experiences of higher education http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/endingviolence/NUS-calls-on-minister-to-host-summit-on-Lad-Culture/