Separate is Never Equal

It is astounding how quickly we forget or wilfully ignore that human rights are there to protect people – not beliefs. At the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, of which I’m president, we increasingly see this confused notion of rights being applied on UK campuses. Whether it’s our student groups intimidated for “blasphemy”, as at LSE and Reading, or religious societies refusing unmarried women permission to speak, as at Bristol, this trumping of individual rights by the supposed rights of “beliefs” is increasingly common.

This Friday saw the publication of a report from Universities UK, the body representing university Vice Chancellors across the UK, on external speakers on campus. The report tackled the kind of issues you might expect – how to handle far-right speakers, what kind of speech might fall foul of hate-speech laws and what groups are banned under anti-terror legislation. But nestled in the report was a bizarre and backward recommendation; universities should be willing to enforce sex segregation between male and female audience members if a speaker requests it.

The report’s peculiar logic ran as follows: speakers have the right to free speech but if their demands for sex segregation are not met they will refuse to speak. Therefore to not enforce sex segregation is to deny the speakers’ freedom of speech. The report is careful only to endorse the ‘nice’ kind of segregation with men and women split on the left and right hand sides of a lecture theatre rather than front and back, the logic here being that men and women are being treated ‘equally separately’, whatever that means.

This logic has echoes of the old racially segregated Deep South of the United States; separate but equal. To argue that segregation is not inherently unequal is to fail to see just why men and women are being kept apart in the first place; this drive for segregation stems from ideologies that view women as very much inferior to men. To allow these ideologies power in UK universities is to betray hard-won individual rights and the principle that in public spaces all must be treated equally. Separate is never equal.

The Universities UK report treats the ideology driving the segregation as if it were something inherent to the speaker that he (and it will always be he) can’t help, as if requiring him to speak to a mixed sex room would be like asking him to levitate. The reality is that ideologies are chosen and speakers alone are responsible for them, not their audience.

Many religious student societies will hold their own events, such as collective worship, at which students will choose to separate themselves by sex in accordance with their beliefs. Insofar as this is voluntary, this is acceptable. What Universities UK have called for, however, is enforced segregation, with students told where to sit, according to their sex, or they can leave. The report then goes on to consider having a third, mixed sex section of the audience as well as a male and a female section. Incredibly, this apparent compromise is then rejected by the report, which warns that to insist on a third mixed sex section is still infringing on the rights of the speaker to have a segregated audience. The report goes as far as to say that non-religious beliefs, such as feminism, should take second place to “sincerely held” religious beliefs. That’s right; the mere fact that they are religious makes some beliefs more important than others because, of course, Feminist can’t be sincere in their beliefs.

The Universities UK report focuses on sex because it’s an issue that has come up before but there is no reason for its logic to stop there. If a racist is invited to speak – should he not have the audience forcibly segregated into whites and non-whites? What if his beliefs are really “sincerely held”? Could the EDL insist on all Muslim students sitting separately? Of course Universities UK would never support this.

In advocating for enforced sex segregation they are cowardly capitulating to religious extremists in a way they surely never would to political extremists. In bending to these extremists, universities betray the moderate majority in religious groups who do not wish to see segregation or, at least, would not want it to be forced on others. Men and women should sit where they wish. Universities have a duty to protect the rights of their students, they do not have a duty to protect their beliefs.

One Year As A Cyclist

This time last year I bought a bike. It had taken four years of living in the city but I was finally living my stereotyped London dream of flying around on two wheels, fluorescent jacket fluorescing and carbon emissions zeroing; king of the road. The bike was freedom. Unlike the tube, I could get exactly where I wanted to go rather than a ten walk away. Unlike the car I could tie the thing to the nearest pole and get on with it. It was blue in some parts and another shade of blue in other parts. It was perfect. 

I was initially cautious, sticking to journeys through parks and laughing with unbridled joy as I left hapless pedestrians and the occasional horse in my wake. What chance did they stand? The bicycle was the vehicle of the future and I its shiny jacketed prophet. The speed, the elegance, the dinging bell. They were glorious days but this was mere child’s play and I knew it. It couldn’t be long before I left my bipedal and quadropedal playmates for the Big Boy world of the London road.

If you haven’t had the experience of being a tiny sack of squishy meat fleeing a stampeding herd of steel wildebeest who dislike you for not having to pay road tax then you haven’t cycled in London. There are few things to make you so acutely aware of your own mortality as passing through Trafalgar Square at half past 5 on a weekday. The roundabout seems to be governed by chaos and bravery, often forcing me to circle it a few times before escaping to the correct exit. It’s always while trying to change lane that you realise your helmet is essentially an upturned polystyrene cup with holes in it, which doesn’t help much either.
It’s when the sun starts to set that the real horrors kick in. No matter how many flashing LEDs I attach to myself (I’m starting to look like a human-shaped Tetris game), drivers will never behave as if they are aware of my existence, barely missing me as they overtake. Potholes, conveniently located at the side of the road where the cyclists cycle, are rendered near-invisible, leaving my backside near-unsittable. Then if you’re out really late, you have the joys of drunk cyclists to look forward to, wibbling and wobbling side to side as if the road were one big tightrope.

It’s fair to say I had an authentic experience of cycling in London but my baptism wasn’t fully complete until 6 weeks into bike ownership when I gobbled my last piece of authenticity pie; my bike was stolen. Well, sort-of stolen. I kept forgetting to lock the thing up and eventually someone took up my offer of a free bike.

I was bereft. Yes, the bike was a source of mortal peril but it had given me a certain freedom I now had lost. For the first time I had started to understand London as a city, a coherent whole. Travelling by road I had seen how one part related to the other. Now, stuck on the underground, I was confined to a sub-par existence of perfectly straight tube lines and other people’s body odour. Here there was less danger of death but it was all false and artificial, like only playing chess with your four year old brother; yes, you’ll never lose but you’ll never experience the challenge of a good game, not to mention the fact that his still developing spatial awareness means you have to move his knights for him.

Marx would say I was “alienated” from my true nature. All I know is I missed my bike and really wanted to get a new one. I got one second hand in the RAG bike auction for £30 which lasted precisely ten seconds when I realised it was meant for someone a foot shorter than me. In the end it took months of saving but I finally bought a shiny cream coloured bike with white handlebars and a white seat. It’s a bike fit for the Angel Gabriel himself and is serving me valiantly. We’ve been together now for 6 months and haven’t looked back, the steaming sweat patch on my back during morning lectures a testimony to our bond.

My year of London cycling has been both off-putting and on-turning, a mixture of horror and freedom. For all its perils, cycling really is the best way to get to know the city and feel part of it. If you really must walk, my last word is for you; ask not for whom them bell tolls, it tolls for thee. So get off my damned cycle path.

Men of Imperial- How To Talk About Gender

Most students at Imperial are men. While this gender imbalance is obvious from the first day of Freshers Week, what it means and how to talk about it can be more challenging. Whispered remarks about “The Ratio” can be heard on most courses and jokes abound about the sexual frustration of Imperial’s males; the straight ones at least. But beyond this, any serious discussion of gender among students can often be dismissed. We can be pretty poor at talking gender and it’s we men who seem to do it worst. 

The low proportion of women students at Imperial is not the College’s fault and in fact when compared to the science, engineering and medicine departments in the rest of the UK, we have slightly more equal gender ratio than average. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be discussed. When posters went up last year in the chemistry department showing the proportion of female researchers in the different groups, it was graffitied with “So? Problem?” Posters inviting female physics students to a female-only event were graffitied with comments calling the event “sexist”. These comments are massively unhelpful and entirely miss the point. It can be tempting to think that simply removing legal barriers to female academics is sufficient to right historic wrongs. A glance at the progress of African Americans since the end of legal segregation in 1954 suggests otherwise. It is quite right that we make a particular effort to encourage schoolgirls to be interested in science and for women undergraduates to pursue their subjects further. When we men are dismissive of the idea, we serve the status quo.

Last week a mini Twitter storm broke out over an upcoming science event in the Excel Arena of Olympic fame. The event features 6 panelists including Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, which is a very cool and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel, all 6 speakers are men. As with Imperial, it is not the fault of the organisers if these were genuinely the best candidates. Where they messed up was with the FAQ on their website, which addressed lack of women. They said; “I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?” “No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that’s what they’re for. We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.”

Yes, this is supposed to be comically exaggerated language but even ignoring the labelling of those who complain of the lack of women speakers as “bigoted” and “misandristic”, the FAQ’s message is quite clear; put up and shut up. We should do neither. It is quite right and reasonable to wonder why the organisers failed to find a single woman panelist. It may indeed be the case that they really did try, but this is hardly the first panel event on science to be all male, and maintaining the status quo allows a self fulfilling prophesy whereby men gain higher profiles from speaking at events which leads them to be invited to more events. It may not be up to this particular event to “fix” this, but to brush it away as a non-issue is wilful ignorance.

Men of Imperial, we can do better than this. To question why the gender imbalance is as it  is not to question whether any one of us deserves to be here or to suggest that College discriminate in favour of women students and employees. Students are right to challenge the status quo and make active efforts to encourage women scientists in College and further afield. Dismissing these efforts as “sexist” is lazy. The Excel event told us that “as scientists we have no choice but to accept reality.” This is a strange definition of science. Rather, as scientists we examine reality, come to understand how it works and find out how to change it. Scientists do not simply accept reality.