MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Wed 11-Dec-13 13:55:40

Gender segregation in British universities - religious extremists aren't the only misogynists out there

Latest guidelines from Universities UK say British universities should segregate lecture audiences by gender, if the religious beliefs of external speakers require it.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations have provoked outrage: a petition has been launched, and the media has been universally critical. But Mumsnet blogger Victoria Smith warns that, when it comes to misogyny in our educational institutions, we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture.

Read the blog, and let us know what you think on the thread below.

Victoria Smith

Blogger, Glosswatch

Posted on: Wed 11-Dec-13 13:55:40

(53 comments )

Lead photo

Protestors against gender segregation in British univerisities

When is it okay to give blatantly obvious sexism the official stamp of approval? When, under the guise of liberalism, religion is allowed to trump gender equality.

That at least seems to be the message we’re getting from Universities UK, who have agreed to the segregation of male and female students in situations where an academic, due to religious beliefs, would otherwise be unwilling to speak. The press are up in arms. "The segregation of women and the appeasement of bigotry" cries The Spectator, while The Telegraph tells us that "allowing university speakers to segregate genders is outrageous". I look at headlines like this and I’ll be honest: I feel torn.

I’m a feminist. My feminism means I don’t think institutions should ever require men and women to sit apart while receiving an education. However, my feminism also means that I wouldn’t trust the 'feminism' of The Telegraph or The Spectator as far as I could throw it (and feminism, being an abstract concept, can't be thrown at all).

Let's be honest here. The right-wing press rarely concerns itself with issues of gender equality unless it can be proven that funny foreigners, religious extremists or vaguely defined 'minorities' are to blame. The pay gap is just a fact of life, reproductive rights don't matter so much - but men and women sitting in separate sections of the same room? Outrageous! l don't think it takes a huge leap of imagination to find this rather suspicious.

I look back on my own university days and remember astonishing amounts of cultural separation... Women were belittled when they spoke up in seminars. Women were mocked for their body shape and clothing when they entered the “male” space of the college bar.


According to Nick Cohen in The Spectator, the decision by Universities UK means it could be "a denial of the rights of a woman hater" – or "representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group", as our finest institutes of higher learning put it – to allow men and women to sit where they please.

The Muslim or Orthodox Jew could refuse to speak in such intolerable circumstances. The university would then have infringed his freedom of speech if it did not segregate.

Academics and scientists, responding on the University UK site, have rightly seen this as a significant and shameful moment in contemporary history; an instant when the liberal establishment became the open and avowed enemy of its best principles.

I agree with him insofar as this is wrong and personal conviction cannot justify it (after all, doesn’t most oppression stem from personal conviction?). Moreover, gender segregation in education matters not just as an abstract limitation placed on freedom of choice, or as a potential insult to women within an unequal university system, but because it has the power to affect how we learn. Being made aware of one's 'maleness' or 'femaleness' in an educational environment can contribute to stereotype threat, leading men and women to limit their own potential by acting out gender stereotypical behaviours ("I can’t do maths!" or "I'm no good with words!"). Forcing people to be, not learners first and foremost, but pink and blue representatives from the moment they enter the lecture hall, is bad for individuals but it's bad for education, too.

However, the more I consider this, the more I am convinced we have to cast the net wider than Cohen suggests. I look back on my own university days in the 1990s and I remember astonishing amounts of cultural separation between men and women. They weren’t officially sanctioned by Universities UK, but they still existed. Women were belittled when they spoke up in seminars. Women were mocked for their body shape and clothing when they entered the 'male' space of the college bar. Posters advertising events around campus always showed scantily clad women, no matter the event, just to make sure we all knew who the 'real' students were. We didn't campaign because this was normality. We didn’t think it was changing the way we understood ourselves, the way we learned and the opportunities we felt were available to us. But it was.

We should be outraged at the Universities UK decision. Nevertheless, we should also be more alert to the cultural and social segregation that is going on around us all the time (for instance, see the relentless belittling of women in the media evidenced in this video). The way men and women live right now is not simply some great state of normality that is being threatened by the weird religious people and their funny ideas. We condition ourselves and our children to accept all sorts of gender-based disparities that we could, if we had the courage, reject. Why not seize this moment to start challenging it wherever we find it?

By Victoria Smith

Twitter: @Glosswitch

Bumbolina Wed 11-Dec-13 15:24:05

Lots of Universities are currently working to get their Athena SWAN awards - or better the ones they have (www.athenaswan.org.uk) I wonder how this kind of segregation would be viewed by them?

scallopsrgreat Wed 11-Dec-13 15:24:46

"The right-wing press rarely concerns itself with issues of gender equality unless it can be proven that funny foreigners, religious extremists or vaguely defined "minorities" are to blame." Totally agree.

Also agree that these little (or big in the case of the Universities UK decision) encroachments do change the way we view ourselves.

What Universities UK have done is put the desires of one group above the rights of another, namely women. Remind me again how oppression happens?

mercibucket Wed 11-Dec-13 15:48:36

I am a bit shocked by your experience of uni

I was in the women's group at uni. we had a women's officer who would not allow sexist posters etc on campus

anyhow, yes, as per usual rightwing interest in women's issues in general is usually suspect. I note the sudden interest in women's (lack of) rights in afghanistan as a more extreme example.

neiljames77 Wed 11-Dec-13 15:49:10

My daughter says that a couple of her teachers shown a patronising and condescending attitude in her science classes towards female pupils. It didn't count for much though because she got physics A*, biology A* and chemistry A* and when she's finished 6th form, she's doing a masters degree in chemical engineering.

ILoveAFullFridge Wed 11-Dec-13 17:26:15

"The Muslim or Orthodox Jew could refuse to speak in such intolerable circumstances. The university would then have infringed his freedom of speech if it did not segregate."

Oh what utter bolleaux! In that case the unis are infringing my freedom of speech by refusing me the opportunity to deliver a lecture on any subject of great importance to me.

Insisting that non-believers conform to someone else's prejudices is unacceptable. There is no need to be gratuitously offensive, but within reasonable limits. If I visit a mosque I will take my shoes off. But if the imam comes to visit me in my house I will not cover my hair for him.

payney954 Wed 11-Dec-13 17:32:15

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eurochick Wed 11-Dec-13 17:44:14

Frankly, if someone isn't willing to speak to a group of people unless they are segregated by gender, I am not interested in a word they have to say.

And I agree with ILove.

Finally, I was also at university in the 1990s and I don't recognise your account of it at all.

ErrolTheDragon Wed 11-Dec-13 18:42:12

"The Muslim or Orthodox Jew could refuse to speak in such intolerable circumstances. The university would then have infringed his freedom of speech if it did not segregate."

No. He is perfectly free to speak. It's entirely up to him whether he chooses to or not. He can always make his opinions known via print if he really finds a normal, equal gathering 'intolerable'. We don't pander to people who want blacks to sit at the back of the bus; we shouldn't pander to anyone who wants women to sit in a different part of a public building from men.

There have been a couple of court cases where the 'rights' of religious groups to discriminate have been pitted against homosexuals - they have lost. The general rule is that inherent characteristics (race, gender, sexual orientation) trump religious scruples. The same applies here.

grimbletart Wed 11-Dec-13 18:52:41

"The Muslim or Orthodox Jew could refuse to speak in such intolerable circumstances. The university would then have infringed his freedom of speech if it did not segregate."

This is the UK. We do not segregate by decree in this country. Get over it.

And just because it is opposed by The Spectator and the Torygraph - as well as pretty much everyone else incidentally - does not mean there is a hidden agenda in this case. I do wish left leaning people would not try to hijack every moral ground to fit their own agendas i.e. presumably that every view taken by a publication that is not the Guardian or the New Statement must, by definition, be suspect.

scallopsrgreat Wed 11-Dec-13 19:12:18

I don't think Glosswitch believes that. I think she is quoting the argument given by Universities UK for this utterly stupid decision.

dementedma Wed 11-Dec-13 19:15:07

If a speaker won't speak to a mixed gender group,then get a new speaker!

NumptyNameChange Wed 11-Dec-13 19:23:52

it is the usual story of every group and 'right' trumps women.

if a speaker from a tribal culture wanted an audience segregated by caste or the like it would never be allowed. yet if it's women who must be put in their place for someone's comfort and tradition that's fine.

the example i give there has come u a few times at college btw - i girl once slapped someone for speaking to her because she was from a lower class in her culture. she was quite shocked that she was the one in trouble.

ILoveAFullFridge Wed 11-Dec-13 19:33:43

I am Jewish, and I can't think of any non-religious circumstance where an Orthodox Jew would refuse to speak to a mixed gathering simply because they were mixed. I wonder whether this has actually arisen, or whether they are trying to be 'pro-active'. To fix something that is not broken. It really is a bizarre concept.

NumptyNameChange Wed 11-Dec-13 19:50:12

i think lumping jewish people in there is a way of avoiding spelling out that they are actually talking about muslims. avoiding singling them out despite the fact it will be a muslim issue.

grimbletart Wed 11-Dec-13 20:46:12

I realise that Scallops - sorry if I wasn't clear. It was a general comment about those groups she quoted who want segregation.

Trills Wed 11-Dec-13 21:13:06

Frankly, if someone isn't willing to speak to a group of people unless they are segregated by gender, I am not interested in a word they have to say.

I might feel sorry for them and their brainwashing rather than feeling hatred towards them, but either way I'd think that it was their problem.

DianeLSmith Wed 11-Dec-13 21:36:15

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

Trills Wed 11-Dec-13 21:38:29

Fucking spammers really piss me off, do they piss you off?

Not a personal attack, just a general question.

MamaMary Wed 11-Dec-13 22:15:51

"I look at headlines like this and I'm torn."

Good gracious, you're torn? Because a newspaper or magazine that isn't Leftie is espousing something you would normally agree with?

I'm sorry you feel torn about what to any right-thinking individual is a clear-cut issue.

Cerisier Wed 11-Dec-13 23:04:37

^^

This

Totally agree with MamaMary.

ButThereAgain Thu 12-Dec-13 09:12:51

The OP seems to want to present all of the disadvantages faced by women at university as a form of segregation -- "cultural segregation" is the phrase used I think. I'm not sure that this sort of assimilation of distinct aspects of sexism is particularly helpful, except polemically as a device for maximising the appearance of inconsistency in the journalist commentators on religious segregation that the OP is addressing.

When women are heard with less respect at seminars (which actually wasn't my experience of university at all, but that's another thread) or when they have to run a gauntlet of sexually harassing behaviour in college bars or offensive images of women on posters, this is something other than segregation. It seems to muddy the waters and undermine analysis to assimilate this sort of sexism to another.

The pink and blue of our overly gendered lives in society generally can be thought of as a sort of segregation, in that it bifurcates in a way that is damaging and spurious.

BUT is it really helpful to lump it in with actual segregation when the only positive thing that might be said about the segregation of men and women at university (something which is, in fact, said by Islamic feminists as well as by some western feminism) is that it very forcefully presents the possibility of a construction of women's identity that is in opposition to a commercially produced bifurcation that commodifies women's appearance and being. Pinkification is part of the consumerization of womanhood, presenting it as a set of purchases that create woman as an object ready for male consumption. Various forms of religious or otherwise anti-western allegiances among women are explicitly resistant to that creation of womanhood. And within those outlooks segregation can be experienced as a liberation from another sort of stultifying bifurcation.

I don't, personally, want to defend religious segregation in that way. I just want to resist an erosion of distinctions that eliminate that particular defence of segregation from view. Because that renders a chunk of the discussion invisible.

My own experience of university is far distant enough for me to have been part of one of the first few intakes of women at a formerly male college -- effectively a woman sitting in the male part of the lecture hall! And there were a still couple of fully female colleges, including the vibrant, wonderful, feminist-filled institution of Somerville College, which was a gloriously encouraging place to visit. So I wouldn't want to write off separation as a source of strength, pride, and achievement in women.

The op makes a straightforwardly factual claim about the stereotype-enforcing effects of separation, and the ways these limit women's perception of their possibilities for achievement. There must be a whole bundle of research here that analyses the effects of separation, and I don't imagine that research would bear out the claim that women in single-sex contexts inevitably have their perceptions of their abilities reduced by separation. I imagine that the results are something much more nuanced.

ErrolTheDragon Thu 12-Dec-13 09:30:39

I don't think anyone should be 'torn' about the fact that right-leaning papers choose to highlight this particular issue - but we should certainly challenge them as to why they don't do the same for other types of sex discrimination - in some cases being perpetrators themselves.

JackAubrey Thu 12-Dec-13 09:31:19

Your argument appears to be framed around the central notion that only those on the left can legitimately be feminists. I am so irritated and dispirited by this constant left-wing highjacking of feminism that I can barely bring myself to post. But I must.
You do not own feminism. It is not the property of the left. "Check your privilege" feminism that says white, middle-class, right of centre women cannot have a say is illiberal, unenlightened and demeaning.
And this is what we are fighting, women. The liberal paradox - that bending over to be liberal to the illiberal sometimes means being illiberal to the liberal. It's crazy bullshit.

ErrolTheDragon Thu 12-Dec-13 09:38:34

ButThereAgain - interesting points on separation - my DD goes to an all-girls' school, which enjoys the commonly-observed greater take-up of science/tech subjects compared to girls in coed schools.

However, there is a large, and rather simple difference between separation and segregation. The first is freely chosen; the second is imposed.

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