01 December 2013


Leicester Secular Society says NO to Sex Discrimination in Universities.

Universities UK have published a guide for its member universities entitled "External speakers in higher education institutions" in which it advocates universities allowing the segregation of audiences by sex in order to meet the religious “requirements” of some speakers.

Leicester Secular Society is opposed to such discrimination. 

This policy is based on exactly the same grounds as used in the “Separate but equal doctrine” in United States constitutional law that justified racial segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the apartheid regime of South Africa. In a university segregation by sex on the grounds of religion and belief is no more acceptable than such discrimination on the grounds of race or religion. Some religions may object to adherents sitting with others with different beliefs. Would it be acceptable to divide an audience in this way by religion or race?

Human Rights relate to the individual and freedom of speech is not promoted in any way by allowing audiences to be segregated. If an individual chooses not to speak to others because he/ she objects to an unsegregated audience, there are many other forums available to express a controversial point of view.

Two of the key reasons for segregation are the subjugation of women, and a throwback to the times when lawlessness and a lack of control by men meant that women were subject to abuse and molestation even in public. Thankfully, we no longer tolerate either of these in our society and segregation is now unnecessary. Surely a primary role for Universities is to educate and promote understanding of these issues and not merely to pander to prior practice and prejudice?

The Society has sent open letters to three local universities (The University of Leicester, De Montfort University and Loughborough University) seeking an assurance that these Universities will not be segregating audiences at any events in this way.


De Montfort University has responded advising that "As a university we therefore take all reasonable actions to prevent forced segregation at our events". 

The University of Leicester response states that "we are tolerant of the views and beliefs of others, we will not accept behaviours "which seek to coerce others into accepting those views or beliefs".

Universities UK (UUK) has withdrawn its controversial guidance that gender segregation could be permitted at UK universities. UUK is now working with lawyers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to clarify the position and in the meantime, it has withdrawn the case study in the guidance which triggered the debate.

The paragraphs in the document causing most concern are:  

“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.” (page 27)

 “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 should therefore be borne in mind that [...] 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.”... (page 28)

"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.” (page 28)

The full document can be read at:

We are not alone in opposing these guidelines.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal has commented that:

 "Universities are secular institutiyesterdayons, 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 have characterised this as a freedom of speech issue, but this is 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."


NSS Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, has said:

"A commitment to Freedom of Expression does not extend to submitting to speakers imposing their own conditions which are, or should be, contrary to the values of the institution, such as the segregation of audiences, or the refusal to allow questions or challenges."


Sylvia McLain in an article "Segregation on campus is never OK, whoever makes the rules"  in "the Conversation" stated:

"A single speaker – whether hypothetical or not – requesting the segregation of an audience at a public university event should be told no, in no uncertain terms.
In the hypothetical case put forward by UUK, the requester did so on religious grounds. But you could think of any grounds you like. What if a white supremacist speaker demanded that races be separated? How would UUK advise them? What if the speaker demanded the audience be separated by religious belief – Sikhs on the right, atheists on the left, Christians to the centre right, Muslims on the centre left. Would UUK consider this arrangement equal?"


Sara Khan in the Independent writes:

"So let me spell it out for Universities UK, segregation results in ‘less favourable treatment.’  It enables the unequal distribution of power between men and women, resulting in gender based discrimination and inequality.  It manifests itself in few female speakers being invited to speak to a mixed audience, limited decision making powers by female members, and how there have only been a handful of Isoc female presidents. 

Segregation perpetuates discriminatory social norms and practices, shaping male attitudes about women and restricting the decisions and choices of women.  By allowing gender segregation, Universities UK are complicit in the gender inequality being perpetuated by Isocs whose advice will only make it easier for Isocs to treat socially unequal groups, in this case women, even more unequally."yesterday


Louisa Peacock in the Telegraph has written:

Universities UK has effectively decided that institutions' duties under law, not to bar anyone on the grounds of their beliefs or views (the Education Act) outweighs other duties under law to help eliminate unlawful discrimination, and advance equality of opportunity between men and women (the Equality Act). 

As Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, claimed earlier this year, universities are pandering to extreme religious beliefs before considering what is morally right from wrong.


Nick Cohen in the Spectator has written:

....academics are using a perveryesterdayse notion of freedom. In normal language, you restrict my freedom if you stop me from speaking or writing. According to Universities UK, you are restricting the freedom of an extreme religious believer if you sit next to someone from the opposite sex, even if he or she is your husband or wife. Your behaviour is so outrageous it silences the believer and deprives him of his right to speak. This is akin to me demanding that everyone who hears me speak must agree with my sentiments. If they politely disagree or ask hard questions, I am a victim. I am at liberty to walk out and perhaps sue the event organisers for attacking my freedom of speech. 


An excellent analysis of the law relating to sex discrimination and religion entitled "University segregation guidance – manifesting, not imposing, beliefs" can be read at http://www.halsburyslawexchange.co.uk/university-segregation-guidance-manifesting-not-imposing-beliefs/

Chuka Umunna, the Labour Shadow Business Secretary, recently made the following comments:

"A future Labour government will not tolerate segregation in our universities, it offends the basic norms of our society. People should, of course, be free to practice their religion privately, at places of worship and religious events, but universities are publicly-funded institutions of teaching, learning and research and state-sponsored segregatioyesterdayn would be utterly wrong."

Jon Ashworth MP Member of Parliament for Leicester South says:
"I agree that people must be free to practice their religion, but as universities are publicly-funded institutions it would be wrong to promote segregation in these arenas."

A legal note has been submitted to Universities UK (UUK) in the name of Radha Bhatt, a student of Cambridge University, against their Guidance condoning gender segregation. The legal note can be found here:


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