Gender Segregation in Universities and Elsewhere

Having been involved in university chaplaincy a couple of times, the issue of gender segregation in universities that has come up in the news is not a new thing for me to think about.

There have been a couple of news reports about issues surrounding Islamic groups in universities this week and quite a lot of comment, not least on the Today programme over the last couple of days on Radio 4.

Here are some thoughts.

Firstly, I think that universities have the obligation to ensure equality of experience to those studying (and working) within them.

Secondly, I’d say that I’m generally suspicious of single-sex gatherings. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that they should ever exist nor that I wouldn’t take part or even lead such a meeting. Sometimes I think it makes sense for men to talk about being men and women to talk about being women. What I get suspicious of are times when power seems to be being manipulated in ways that ensure that a group of people have a worse experience of life than they otherwise would.

It was my experience when I worked in the chaplaincy at the University of London that we were occasionally approached by Isalamic women who wanted a place to say their prayers on a Friday and who enquired whether they could come to the chapel. My answer was always that everyone was welcome to pray in the chapel and it was the case that such women did sometimes find that place a place of prayerful welcome. Of course, I always asked why they could not go to the campus mosque which the University provided. (It didn’t, incidently provide the chapel, which was a Church of England building). The answer tended to be a shrug of the shoulders for it was clear to everyone on the campus that women were not welcome in the mosque.

My view is that the conversation about banning same-sex organisations on campus is a trickier one than it first appears. Universities have for a long time had single-sex structures within them though that appears to be receding. When I was at St Andrews University there were some single-sex halls of residence. I believe that there are fewer of these than there used to be. My only regret is that fewer students will have the enjoyable frissance of creeping around the wrong hall at the wrong time of day. However, that notwithstanding, I suspect that single-sex accomodation may well be becoming a thing of the past.

But there are single-sex sports clubs a-plenty and there are many Christian organisations in British Universities that have prayer breakfasts (why always wretched breakfasttime!) and similar opportunities for women. Christian Unions who have single-sex meetings might well be watching the developments surrounding Islamic students very carefully.

My own take is that any money or resources provided to students in Universities (including room bookings) should be given on the general presumption that such resources are for all students who are interested in the activity regardless of gender. I struggle to say that single-sex meetings should be banned but I think that a case needs to be made for any that happen. I don’t think myself that it is legitimate for a University to provide a Chapel that is only for Christians to use, a mosque that only male students can use or sports facilities that are dominated by one gender or the other. (To use binary gender shorthand that won’t please everyone who reads this). What people do in their own time and space is their own business. Men’s prayer breakfasts in private places (including rooms in halls of residence) don’t bother me so long as I don’t have to go to them. Public space set apart for one gender to use does bother me quite a lot.

We don’t have any single-gender organisations in St Mary’s and I’m quite glad it is so. It is the case that the clergy who celebrate on a Sunday at the 10.30 am service are all male for the first time in many years though that isn’t the case for all the services that take place here. I’ve also been surprised in recent years that we are not a congregation with any male flower arrangers. One might have thought that we were a congregation full of them, but no, apparently not.

I’ve been asked if I will consider co-leading a retreat for gay men sometime next year and it is an idea that I am actively thinking about. However, I’m also clear that it won’t come under the auspices of St Mary’s if I do it. I’ve benefited from such retreats in the past and I know that there are similar gatherings that lesbians have sometimes found very necessary. Interestingly, the LGBT group at St Mary’s has always been gender mixed in a way that at first surprised me. Should that group ever have a retreat, I’m sure that it would be open to both men and women, those who don’t identify comfortably as either and probably include a couple of straight people too.

These lines are complicated and more difficult to draw than at first appears on the Today programme.

Would you draw them differently to the way I would draw them?


  1. The issue that Universities UK was advising on wasn’t single sex meetings but segregated seating, which is significantly different. They were talking neither about organisations nor meetings that were closed to members of either sex but of segregation by sex within a single meeting open, on that basis, to all.

    This isn’t to say that it isn’t important to think about the issues you raise, just that they are substantially and importantly different from the issues raised by the UUK advice, which in turn are different (as UUK say in this response from those raised in the subsequent debate)

    • I also remember about 15 years ago welcoming a straight couple into an Anglican congregation who told me that they had never sat together in church before, it being the custom where they came from in rural Wales for men and women to sit on opposite sides of the aisle in church.

      They also told me that it was the custom to put up on a board what everone had given the previous week.

  2. Thanks Nick – I wasn’t aware that this was what had caused it. I don’t think my comments are irrelevant to that situation and some of the discussion I heard on Today was broader than simply over seating.

    I am reminded of the performances of (I think) Oleana by David Mamet in which the audience was seated in gender segregated seating. It was an interesting experiment and one that made many uncomfortable.

    I struggle to think of any situation where I would support gender segregated seating on the basis of the preference of the speaker.

  3. In Homerton Hospital 10 years ago they had invested big bucks in a stunning multi-faith chaplaincy centre. Women Muslim patients still said their prayers in the stairwell.

    I say No to segregation.

  4. I certainly wouldn’t want to (try to) introduce segregated seating into my churches but that’s a slightly different question from telling others they’re not allowed to segregate, which is what’s in question in this case. The advice from UUK was that Universities should tolerate meetings being held in their premises where seating was segregated. The advice was not aimed at anyone who wanted to segregate but at the owners of buildings such people might want to use. From the point of view of the Church we’re more likely, I would think, to be in the position of the University than that of the meeting organisers, since segregated seating is more or less unknown in contemporary British Christian settings (as far as I know).

    • I’ve only encountered segregated seating in Coptic churches and in Synagogues.

      As I said above, I have met people who have lived their lives in the UK in a church which did practise segregated seating.

  5. Duncan says

    Good points, well made.

    The thing that does disturb me a little in this debate (refreshingly absent from your piece) is the shrillness of the liberal voices I have heard (particularly on Radio 4) about that fact that, on occasion, consenting adults might want to sit in separate groups.

    Listening to them, it was as if one of the 10 commandments had been broken. (“Thou shalt not sit in a group comprised only of members of the same sex where there exists a group of the opposite sex in close proximity.”)

    IF there is no coercion, overt or implicit, then surely people are free to sit ‘where the heck they like’ (to quote the University spokesperson speaking on this issue.)

    What it did raise for me, however, is the fact that coercion is rarely absent from group gatherings of any sort – where the pressure to conform can be strong. And churches are as ‘bad’ at this as any other group. Group norms – whether voiced by the shrill cry of left-leaning liberals, or conservative Imams, or vicars on Sunday – are stubborn and powerful little blighters. I’m not sure that legislating them in – or out – really works.

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