‘Good’ gender segregation and ‘bad’ gender segregation?

by Stephen Tall on December 12, 2013

I’ve just heard the Chief Executive of Universities UK be put through the mill on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme following its decision to publish advice that gender segregation might not necessarily be discriminatory as long as “both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way”. The guidance – which you can read here – is specific to invited external speakers at meetings on university premises.

I do not like gender segregation. At all. Maybe it’s the result of having gone to a boys-only CofE secondary school. It is an entirely artificial construct and I’d much rather everyone, including kids, learned how to operate in a real world environment.

However, I was struck by the outrage of my Twitter timeline this morning at the very idea of gender segregation at university. Why? After all, it already exists. There are three women-only colleges at Cambridge (all Oxford’s former women’s colleges have now become co-educational). Is that gender segregation wrong? If so, when are the heads of Murray Edwards, Newnham and Lucy Cavendish colleges going to be hauled over the coals for promoting gender segregation?

Or what about schools? Many parents decide to educate their children in single-sex schools. Those with daughters may well point to the (admittedly limited) evidence that girls do better, particularly in subjects like Maths, in a single-sex environment. Is that wrong? The analogy to race was used frequently this morning: “would a university ever agree to an external speaker requesting an audience be segregated according to race?” It’s a fair question to ask: but only if we apply it to all walks of life, and not just this one isolated piece of guidance by Universities UK.

In fact, it’s arguable that Universities UK’s guidance is preferable to single-sex schooling. After all, their guidance applies only to external speaker meetings – not to lectures or any other requirements of the curriculum. In other words, the audience gets to choose whether to attend the meeting. They can attend and will probably have the chance to question directly why the meeting is gender segregated. Or they can boycott it, peaceably protest, and shame the organisers for their out-dated view of life. Not many kids get the chance to exercise that right at their single-sex school.

By all means condemn gender segregation – I’ll certainly continue to argue against it. But if you do, follow the logic of that position and recognise there isn’t ‘good’ gender segregation and ‘bad’ gender segregation.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.