A top UK university has accepted that gender segregation that took place at a gala dinner, which saw women and men separated by a curtain, was unlawful, The Independent can reveal.
The London School of Economics (LSE) came under fire in March last year after the Islamic Society held a gala dinner for which students had to buy separate tickets depending on whether they were a “brother” or a “sister”.
When they arrived at the event, held at a banqueting hall in central London, there was a large screen separating the men’s tables from the women’s ones, stopping the attendees from even looking at each other.
The university has now conceded that the annual event is “likely to fall foul of the Equality Act 2010 and be unlawful on the grounds of discrimination by gender due to the segregation”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission states that gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students’ union.
A letter of complaint submitted by students to the LSE Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Division in May last year claimed the requirement for men and women to sit in separate parts of the room was “discriminatory” on the basis of gender in accordance with the EHRC guidance.
“Students were actively segregated through the ticketing process, as well as the presence of the separation wall,” the letter stated.
“The gender segregated requirements at the event therefore included direction, instruction and expectation with regards to seating, movement and interaction of attendees. In no way could such requirements be classed as voluntary.”
In a formal response to the complaint, seen exclusively by The Independent, Carola Frenge, chair of the EDI taskforce, wrote: “The School appreciates your position and accepts that there might have been an obligation on the School to investigate this matter more thoroughly at the outset,” it read.
“I have therefore conducted an investigation into this matter and accept that there is a likelihood that the Annual Dinner was unlawfully gender segregated.”
Ms Frenge found that there was no clear evidence the segregation was voluntary, or that the annual dinner could not be considered an act of worship, and that there were therefore no grounds for exemption from the Equality Act.
The LSE also admitted that they did not take adequate steps to formally investigate whether unlawful discrimination occurred, or adequate steps to prevent the risk of similar unlawful discrimination occurring in the future.
Its response to the students’ complaint accepted that “there might have been an obligation on the Schools to investigate this matter more thoroughly at the outset".
Despite this admission, LSE did not act on all of the concerns the students had raised and, according to the students, refused to take pertinent action to ensure that gender segregation would not reoccur.
Given LSE’s limited response, and what they perceived as attempts by the university to delay the process, the students took the complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Students in Higher Education.
The watchdog ruled that the appeal to the complaint was “partly justified”, concluding in a document seen by The Independent: “The School confirms that regrettably no formal guidance or training was given to students in relation to gender segregation.
“The safeguards mentioned by the Pro Director, Teaching and Learning had not been monitored and nor had they been effective. However, we are not persuaded that the School’s decision to dismiss the complaint about the timeliness of its response was reasonable.
“Nor are we persuaded that the School provided evidence to support its position that safeguards had been put in place to prevent gender discrimination prior to the Annual Dinner.”
On 11 September 2017, the students received an apology from the LSE “for the length of time that it took us to complete our internal complaints procedure”.
When contacted by The Independent the LSE said the gender segregation at the event "did not comply with LSE’s own guidelines on equity, diversity and inclusion, and may have been unlawful".
It added that it has since worked closely with the LSE Students Union and its societies to make sure "all events are inclusive and that all are aware of and understand the EHRC guidelines", saying it had provided the union and its societies with guidance and training in relation to gender segregation.
The National Secular Society (NSS), which supported the students in their complaint, said gender apartheid was an “assault on women’s rights and dignity” and should have “no place” on campuses.
Stephen Evans, NSS campaigns director, told The Independent: “As a society we are much slower to condemn discrimination when it comes cloaked in religion, and particularly Islam. But gender apartheid is an assault on women’s rights and dignity, and should have no place on campuses.
“The students should therefore be commended for holding LSE to account. I hope this episode serves as a warning to all universities that turning a blind eye to such discriminatory practices will not be tolerated”.
An LSE spokesperson said: “In August 2016 LSE responded to a complaint regarding the annual dinner held by The LSESU Islamic Society earlier that year.
“Following an investigation, the School concluded that by explicitly separating male and female guests the dinner did not comply with LSE’s own guidelines on equity, diversity and inclusion, and may have been unlawful in light of Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) guidelines on gender segregation.
“In light of these findings, the School worked closely with the LSESU and its societies to make sure all events are inclusive and that all are aware of and understand the EHRC guidelines. The School provided the Students’ Union and its societies with guidance and training in relation to gender segregation to enable a better understanding of the obligations under the EHRC guidelines and LSE’s own policies.
“The LSESU Islamic Society is one of LSE’s most public-minded student groups. It raises extraordinary amounts for charity every year and its members are active participants in School life, including in interfaith projects and events.”
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