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.
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?