Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bristol CU Discrimination Investigation

The Report

Last week, the University of Bristol Student Union (UBU) released the report into discrimination against female speakers by the University of Bristol Christian Union (BUCU), widely reported at the end of last year. This discrimination was revealed in an e-mail to CU members stating that the executive had decided women may not speak at some high-profile BUCU events unless accompanied by their husband. BUCU was found to have broken the UBU Equality Policy and will be monitored by UBU until July to ensure they comply. If they fail to do this, further sanctions may be imposed, including disaffiliation.

The report gives a fairly damning insight into the organisation where a culture of "different but equal" had informed what roles were suitable and not suitable for men and women. That some BUCU students thought that this was appropriate policy for a student society is shocking and perhaps explains why this didn't come to light earlier.

Some Concerns

Whilst the report is thorough, explains clearly what happened and the sanctions seem proportionate, there were two aspects which were disappointing.

1) The recommended sanctions have no detail. Close monitoring of the CU until July seems a reasonable sanction, but details of how this will be implemented are needed. Will the CU be required to minute all meetings and submit these minutes to UBU officers? What will the timetable of interactions between UBU officials and the CU exec be? How often will UBU officials meet with the CU exec? At Student Council, Berti assured me that a schedule of meetings and milestones to be reached will be established, but that it would not have been appropriate to include them in this report. At the time of writing, it had not been confirmed when this would be finalised.

The sanctions should also require the CU to release a final statement committing to the Equality Policy in full and explicitly removing the barrier to women speaking unaccompanied at high-profile BUCU events. At Student Council, Matt Oliver, President of BUCU, said that their last statement had done this, but this is clearly not the case. It was a business-as-usual statement which committed to "biblical equality" (different but equal) and to inviting women speakers to all events, but not explicitly as keynote, unaccompanied speakers.
In line with our basic position throughout that process, which has not been widely publicised, the Executive Committee now wish to make clear that we will extend speaker invitations to both women and men, to all BUCU events, without exception. BUCU is utterly committed to reflecting the core biblical truth of the fundamental equality of women and men.
- BUCU Statement, 05/Dec/2012

One member of the student council, clearly frustrated by the idea of more empty words, asked whether the CU should demonstrate their commitment to equality by inviting female speakers. Oliver responded that they now had a female speaker in their schedule, though, at the the time of writing, you'd be hard-pressed to find her on their website.

2) Ignorance of Human Rights was accepted as a mitigating factor. In mitigating factor "5.2.1 Visibility of Documents" the CU committee claimed "that they were not aware of the Equality Policy and claimed never to have seen the Code". Putting to one side the key legal principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse, this seems unlikely for two reasons:

- 2.1) In the text of the Initial Statement, Matt Oliver writes, "I encourage you to pray about this and to chat to any of the exec about it but also to guard the way we all talk about it in the coming weeks, making sure we’re not gossiping." There would be no need for this call for secrecy if the CU executive felt entirely comfortable with the decision they had taken and were willing to defend it in public.

- 2.2) Equality isn't an UBU-specific rule like subsidising broadsheet newspapers. UBU is required by UK law, in the Equality Act 2010, to ensure that no discrimination occurs in any of its subdivisions or member societies. 

Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits discrimination on grounds of certain protected characteristics including sex. Cases surrounding issues of equality and human rights are frequently reported in the media and it seems highly unlikely that students attending the University of Bristol would be ignorant of these. In January this year, four high profile cases were brought to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of "Christian persecution". In two of the cases, Christians had claimed the right to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, another protected characteristic, and both of them were rejected.

When deciding the reasonableness of ignorance of equality, it is important to generalise and keep in mind the average student society leader. Would an average student society leader be aware that equal treatment of people regardless of gender was required by law? Surely. Would the defence of ignorance mitigate discrimination on grounds of other protected characteristics such as sexual orientation or race? Surely not.


This report sets out the principles of equality and condemns "biblical concepts" of "equal but different" as unacceptable in a student society. It does, however, undermine this conviction by being too generous in mitigation. Students need to know that if they see discrimination occurring in a society then they can report it, it will be taken seriously by UBU and UBU will support them 100%. This is especially important for members of religious societies where a conservative culture can often lead to more liberal students feeling isolated. Hopefully more students will come forward in future to challenge inequality in their societies, report it to UBU and call it out.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Blasphemy By The Back Door: Andrew Copson speaks to Bristol AASS

Offensive or an expression of "if ice cream were a religion, it would be one of universal love, regardless of race, colour, creed or gender"?

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association,  was the main speaker for Bristol AASS' Reason Week and provided an entertaining and alarming insight into de facto blasphemy laws in advertising in the UK. Starting with a number of banned adverts for Antonio Federici ice cream (I'm not sure it exists, never seen it in shops!) Copson gave some examples of the Byzantine and often arbitrary ways in which the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) carry out their duty to take down any adverts "likely to cause serious and widespread offense". He highlighted the use of religious privilege by comparing two Phones4U adverts, one of which features Buddy Christ, which was banned, and the other a scary undead girl, which was not banned, despite the former receiving only 98 complaints whilst the latter attracted 525 complaints.

Andrew spoke about the BHA's experience trying to get the Atheist Bus Campaign off the ground. The now famous "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" had started life as "There isn't a God ..." A failure to get a positive ruling on the original text from the Committee of Advertising Practice (in no way related to the ASA...) lead to an effective ban on the original wording and so the "probably" was introduced. Copson said that this actually turned out to be beneficial, making the advert more lighthearted and playing on established advertising tropes such as the Carlsberg "probably the best lager" campaign (which I only realised when he pointed it out!)

He finished by speaking about how these sorts of regulations can privilege religions in the public space and lead to countervailing voices being silenced. As a consequence, the BHA will be starting a campaign to call out the chilling effect this can have on public discourse, so look out for that one soon!

The next Bristol AASS event is a Fishbowl Discussion in the Colston Arms on Tuesday at 8pm

Andrew Copson will be speaking at the AHS Convention in London on the 2nd March, so don't forget to book your tickets! Speakers also include Gita SahgalPolly Toynbee, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili, Keith Porteus Wood and Natalie Haynes!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Atheism and Feminism: Bristol AASS Discussion

Last Tuesday, discussion writers Caitlin G and Olly M brought us a challenging discussion on atheism and feminism. It covered a broad span of topics including sex, gender differences, the ethics of equality, religious sexism and sexism in secular society too. We started with definitions: what is sexism? What is feminism? What is the patriarchy?

The subject of objectification brought about some debate, what it was and whether pornography and strip clubs were more or less responsible than Page 3 and the media fixation on what female public figures wear. One member of our group told us about how she had worked at an estate agent in Texas which required women staff to wear make-up and how she had been sent home when she refused to comply one day. She was also required to dye her hair red because they already had blonde and brunette staff and wanted clients to be able to pick whether they did business with “the blonde, the brunette or the redhead".

The most contentious topic of the evening (which continued later on Facebook) was sex and gender differences, what they are, whether they exist and whether they are determined by genetics, culture or chance. This is a topic which suffers from terrible reporting, where gender biases are framed as “men are like X, women are like Y, therefore unpleasant behaviour, Z, is somehow justified”. This sort of thinking falls into two traps. First, gender biases tell you nothing about individuals. If it is found that 75% of boys prefer playing with trucks rather than dolls (controlling for culture, etc) then what can you infer from this information? It doesn't say that boys should never play with dolls, it doesn't say that any boy who does so is somehow disingenuously male. This leads into the second problem;  this sort of logic tries to make a statement about how the world should be from observations about how it is, breaching the is-ought gap. It is only possible to justify biological determinism for behaviour which negatively affects others if you deny rational agency as well. A disposition towards certain behaviour does not absolve us of the responsibility to negotiate rights and get the consent of others whom those actions are likely to affect.

Finally we looked at how atheism, humanism and secularism intersect with feminism. The link with secularism, seeking equality for all regardless of religion, is the most obvious one with religious organisations granted privileged exceptions from equality law and allowed to exclude women from their higher ranks. This leads to the outrageous outcome that 26 seats in the House of Lords, those of the Bishops or “Lords Spiritual”, are reserved exclusively for men. The link with Humanism is strong too, with a commitment to equality and human rights for all.

The next event is "Evan Harris: Secularism in 2013" tonight (Tuesday) at 6:30pm in The Frank Lecture Theatre, Physics

Don't forget to book tickets for the AHS Convention in London from the 1st March. Speakers include Polly Toynbee, Natalie Haynes, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili Andrew Copson and Keith Porteus Wood!