The courts are likely to consider gender segregation at events and meetings organised by universities, students' unions and students' societies unlawful unless those events are acts of religious worship, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said.
In new legal guidance, which can be viewed here, the watchdog said compulsory segregation was not permitted and voluntary segregation, though legally allowed, should not be practised as it would be impossible to tell whether those participating were genuine volunteers.
The Commission said: “Gender segregation, such as seating men and women separately at an event, is not permitted at events which are not acts of religious worship.
“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.”
This position extended to 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.
Voluntary segregation presented an “evidential challenge in relation to what is demonstrably voluntary [which] will be significant and for that reason may be impractical given that universities must satisfy themselves that the event is lawful,” it said.
“Therefore, the safest approach is to ensure that there is no encouragement of segregated seating by gender, other than in acts of religious worship.
“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.”
A spokesman for the universities’ umbrella group Universities UK said: “We welcome this new guidance which seeks to provide greater clarity about the law relating to gender segregation on university campuses.
“Enforced gender segregation is never acceptable. In practice, the issue of gender segregation arises in connection with some religious events on campus, and not university lectures or teaching.”