Good news: EHRC condemns gender segregation

Gender SegregationThe Lawyers’ Secular Society has welcomed the news that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) views gender segregation of university and campus events as unlawful. The only exception relates to religious worship and practice. You can read the EHRC’s advice here.

In November 2013 Universities UK (UUK), the representative body for universities in this country, published guidance for universities declaring that gender segregation was permitted for “genuinely held religious beliefs”. This was in response to the increasing regularity of gender-segregated events organised by Islamic societies on campus. UUK had adopted the following reasoning:

“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.”

The LSS strongly condemned UUK’s guidance and shortly afterwards the LSS took part in a protest outside UUK’s offices in Tavistock Square, London. You can read LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian’s speech here. The protest attracted widespread media coverage and UUK were strongly criticised by the Prime Minister David Cameron, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, and the Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna. UUK promptly withdrew its guidance pending a review.

Cambridge University student Radha Bhatt, instructing Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, also challenged the legality of UUK’s guidance on the basis it is a public authority for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and bound by the public sector equality duty. You can read the letter here.

The EHRC’s advice states:

“Gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students’ union.”

UUK has updated its guidance to take account of the EHRC’s advice. You can read it here.

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“We welcome the EHRC’s advice whilst at the same time remarking, as we have done in the past, how depressing it is to be fighting battles that have already been won.

“I am very proud that the LSS was involved in this campaign. If UUK’s original guidance had gone unchallenged that would have set a terrible precedent in our universities and our public spaces generally.

“We’ll see how far Islamic societies try to stretch the definition of religious worship and practice but for the time being, we are generally happy with the EHRC’s advice.”

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