Commission tackles gender segregation in universities

18 July 2014

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published new legal guidance today on gender segregation at events and meetings organised by universities (including other higher and further education establishments), students’ unions and students’ societies.

The guidance will ensure organisers and educational establishments understand their legal responsibility to prevent discrimination against students, employees and members of the public.  It confirms that gender segregation, such as seating men and women separately at an event, is not permitted at events which are not acts of religious worship.

These include academic meetings, speaking events, lectures or meetings organised for and attended by students, members of the public or employees of the university or students union, whether or not held on university premises.

Gender segregation is permissible during religious worship because this is not covered by equality law. However, once an event goes beyond religious worship or practice, equality law applies and the courts are likely to consider any gender segregation to be unlawful.

The guidance makes clear that any gender segregation amounts to discrimination if it results in disadvantage to any participant because of their gender.  This will include situations where men and women are seated separately.

Genuinely voluntary gender segregation is permissible under the law. However, it is the Commission’s view that it would be impracticable for organisers to attain the necessary certainty that, at every stage, segregation was demonstrably voluntary for all individuals considering or attending an event and that there was no explicit or implicit expectation that men and women should sit separately.

The evidential challenge in relation to what is demonstrably voluntary will be significant and for that reason may be impractical given that universities must satisfy themselves that the event is lawful. Therefore, the safest approach is to ensure that there is no encouragement of segregated seating by gender, other than in acts of religious worship.

Equality law protects individuals from discrimination because of religion or belief. However, any claim of religious discrimination on the basis of a refusal to permit gender-segregated seating would not succeed as the prohibition would be justified in order to prevent unlawful sex discrimination.

Mark Hammond, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:

“Gender segregation in our universities and higher educational establishments is a controversial issue as well as a complex area of the law. Universities, higher and further education institutions have a legal duty to ensure that all students, employees and members of the public can enjoy access to events without unlawful discrimination. 

“The Commission’s guidance will help higher education providers and student unions to understand their legal obligations and avoid the risk of discrimination due to a misinterpretation of the law.”


For further information please contact the Commission’s media office on 0161 829 8102, out of hours 07767 272 818.

Notes to editors

  • The Commission’s guidance, Gender Segregation at Events and Meetings – Guidance for Universities and Student’s Unions can be found here.  
  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006. It is an independent body responsible for protecting and promoting equality and human rights in Great Britain.  It aims to encourage equality and diversity, eliminate unlawful discrimination, and promote and protect human rights.  The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation. It encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and is accredited by the UN as an ‘A status’ National Human Rights Institution.  


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