Labour’s double standards on gender segregation

Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna has gained a whole load of plaudits with his unequivocal opposition to Universities UK’s advice on gender segregation at events hosted by universities.

Umunna, whose brief covers university education, told the website Left Foot Forward:

“It is deeply troubling that Universities UK has issued guidance suggesting that segregation would be tolerated at higher education institutions. It was mistaken to do so,” he said.

“A future Labour government will not tolerate segregation in our universities – it offends the basic norms of our society. People should, of course, be free to practice their religion privately, at places of worship and religious events, but universities are publicly-funded institutions of teaching, learning and research and state-sponsored segregation would be utterly wrong.”

So, ball placed firmly in the political net there by Umunna amidst the gathering outcry, which David Cameron and Michael Gove have since joined, saying respectively that “universities should not allow this” and that the guidance was “pandering to extremism”.

But there are some startling double standards here, especially from Labour. Examples of gender segregation and other forms of segregation are widespread in our universities and elsewhere in public life as I have pointed out here, but of all institutions, gender segregation is probably most widely practised in ... the Labour Party.

Every year the Labour Party precedes its annual conference with a Labour Women’s Conference for its women members. The party and its associated institutions hold numerous other women-only events, and it also holds women-only candidate selections. Men are segregated completely out of the room at many of those women’s events and are segregated completely off the ballot paper in those selections: this is about complete separation in practice.

When you raise these contradictions, the cry comes back, “No, but they are different.”

Damn right they are different: they are approved of, while Muslim groups attempting their own form of segregation is not approved.

What we have been seeing with the clamour against the UUK guidance is a basic exercise of preferentiality and favouritism towards some groups and against others. It is classic double standards through the practice of identity politics, privileging some forms of identity (gender, skin colour, sexuality) over others (religious, Muslim), based largely on negative assumptions and associations – perhaps justified, for the most part – about the latter.

The reasoning at work here is clearly more about curtailing the power of Islamist groups on university campuses (often described as stopping ‘pandering to religious misogyny’) than any sort of principled stance on segregation.

This is a decent enough aim in my view, but saying you’re taking a principled stance against  something that you yourself don’t just tolerate but actively and aggressively promote is not the best way to do it.


  1. You may have a point. (I abhor the existence of the "Labour Women's Conference' as I know that many men are just as much in favour of women's rights as women are.) However, misogyny is bad whereas sexual and racial equality are good, Yes? So, yes, this IS about "stopping pandering to religious misogyny". Quite right, too.

    1. Hi Nan, thanks for your comments here and to the other article. My point isn't that misogyny is good or should be tolerated, but that segregation is practised all over the place and it's a nonsense to be talking about banning it - it's simple double standards. We should instead be targeting where sexism and misogyny are actually practised; if groups practise it in their segregated meetings, then ban them for that, not the segregation itself (which doesn't necessarily create discrimination against, only discrimination between).


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