University UK have missed a distinction between a religious meeting and a public meeting in their guidelines “External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions”, as they recommend bending over backwards at the last minute to an indignant speaker who suddenly requests segregated seating.
You have probably read The Daily Telegraph article on guidelines issued by University UK – no doubt formed in the wake of the University College of London incident with Lawrence Krauss. What you might not have done is read the relevant guidelines themselves.
You can read them here see page 27.
The case study involves a speaker invited by a university who at the last minute springs gender seated segregation as a condition, and those pesky feminist groups that would be appalled by even a side by side men/women division. Such a last minute eventuality used, suggests not so much a serious treatment of proper guidelines covering, but crisis management for a sold out well advertised event. Unique circumstances, as a rule, do not make good general guidelines.
As such the feminist groups, and other societies that object, are to be placated with the right to protest and encouraged to hold a parallel debate on the issue. What triumphs over the beliefs of feminists, and students who do not agree with gender segregation is the free speech of a speaker who when agreeing to speak never mentioned at the outset of arranging this would be a deal breaker.
The case study misuses free speech of a speaker in a public event to allow gender segregated seating to be imposed. Even a third mixed gender seating area misses that people at a public meeting are not to be treated according to their gender. For that is sexual discrimination before we have even entered the door to find our seats. Religious freedom or free speech does not allow sexually discriminating seating happening anymore then it would allow racial discrimination in seating.
I have mentioned before on twitter that no one has been calling for gender segregation to be made illegal. The case study notes (page 28):
that decisions can be very fact-dependent, and that the law applies differently in different scenarios. For example, there is an express prohibition in the Equality Act against segregation on racial grounds, and there are also special provisions in relation to single-sex sporting events. The points above are not intended as a substitute for seeking appropriate legal advice.
Clearly the advice is to bend over backwards for a last-minute-condition by a speaker, for the law allows this. Whether it is moral, or ethical can be subject to the feminist group holding their parallel debate to let off some steam. If the law is not there to protect, you have no reason to object. By being inclusive we can role back the advances in gender equality; the contradiction should be apparent if we replace gender with race.
The case study mentions ambiguity over whether feminism is protected as a belief system to rival the religious belief of a speaker. Vegetarianism is recognised as a belief in UK law. University UK suggests legal advice – however, it’s suggestions weigh best interests of religion with the trump card. Is there any legal basis for them doing so?
I would urge university societies appalled at the idea of segregated seating at public meetings to ensure their Student Union has a proviso in guidelines that says segregation by gender is unacceptable as it would be by race at public meetings organised by student organisations, and that all speakers to public meetings recognise this. No last minute ransom could then happen because speakers have accepted no segregation will be allowed to happen.
What sort of meeting
I mention the distinction between what sort of meeting, because here the guidelines briefly asks as a question to consider “is the meeting open to the public?” A public event should treat all citizens equally – treating people according to their sexual anatomy where they may or may not sit would go against this idea as it would by race. Mentioning disability misses that you cannot choose to be paralysed, partially sighted or hard of hearing – we recognise that allocated seating helps less able citizens to be able to participate at a public event more equally with other attendees should they wish to take advantage of it. Your religious belief does not qualify in the same way as a disability.
To make where you sit a religious belief that must be adhered to at a public event misses that you have chosen to accept this belief as true for yourself. It cannot be imposed on others as true. They have religious freedom as do yourself. You do not get to trump other citizens by virtue of having a religious belief. The closest you could possibly hope to get to a disability is psychological upset if made to sit in a non segregated environment. I imagine feminists will beat you to it, with evidence of patriarchy. If sensibilities allow us to discriminate against others over their counter sensibilities we end up with a mockery of a guideline that should also consider the sensibilities of racism of the law permitted.
Racists that would not attend without racial segregated seating have no moral right to get their way, nor should our speaker or audience member by gender segregation. If citizens at a public meeting are to be treated equally, a university should hold it’s nerve.
If a religious meeting for a religion that practises gender segregation, then these points may not apply. For such adherents are voluntarily following their beliefs in a setting they have established. If members of the public are invited to a religious meeting, then they should be told of such segregation. We may object, but the format of the meeting changes that – without a law to say this would be illegal then religious freedom wins over what we would consider sexual discrimination. Religious freedom again trumps free speech of members of the public who might object to such an event, where women sit at the back or enter via a different entrance. In that situation a separate debate would seem appropriate to denounce such religious practises if the mood took you. Free speech after all.
So a huge issue not raised by the case study ensues from the above – is the speaker attending as an individual or in a religious capacity? This has not even crossed their mind, just as a public/not public meeting distinction has not. If as a religious figure but at a public meeting, then public event rules should hold to prevent sexual discrimination.
It should concern us all that gender equality is being undermined by minority religious views. The University UK guidelines in a two page treatment miss out some key issues to discuss, and uses such a bizarre set of circumstances to frame general guidelines that they have not helped clarify the situation, not helping by failing to realise that men and women being seated apart is not treating everyone fairly when sexual discrimination is the reason for such a segregated seating arrangement existing.
Calling sexual discrimination free speech, or religious freedom does not change a thing. Reading this, it seems the Equality Act by not mentioning gender on a par with race may require a future amendment if we are serious about people not being treated according to gender in the public space.
I would regret needing a law to prevent such discrimination by gender. But these are the times we live in.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog