This is the official blog of the Feminism Society of Royal Holloway University of London.To join our mailing list or submit an article, feel free to email To pay your society membership please visit

Monday, 20 February 2012

Further success from the last general meeting.

By Flick Myerscough

In addition to the femsoc motions listed here: Rhul Fem Soc Making Waves in Surhul Genral Meetings since 2011 - we saw two other important gender equality motions passed at the last general meeting.

Motion to challenge and oppose the recent HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) changes to information required from students.

To provide some background for this motion, I’m going to post an edited version of the speech I had prepared, should the motion have been unstarred. This is followed by some questions and answers which I thought might arise, and some links to other sources of information.

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) works with public universities in the UK, collecting and disseminating statistical information. They are proposing changes to their equality and diversity monitoring section. These changes, as listed on the HESA website, include a move from a student gender field, with answers of male, female and indeterminate, to a compulsory student sex field, with answers of male and female, and a separate student gender field, optional for institutions, asking if a student’s gender is that they were assigned at birth. Universities can, and some currently do, add categories or change guidance, such that students who identify under the trans umbrella can answer the current question. (HESA guidelines state that the indeterminate category is meant only to represent intersex students.) But a change made on an institutional level, does not guarantee statistical representation on a national level. The proposed changes aggravate this situation, and deny the existence of intersex people. The separate gender question, as currently worded, also risks “outing” transitioning students, or those who have already transitioned.

The proposed sex field is claimed in some places on the HESA website to be intended to record students “legal” sex and in some places their “biological” sex. (The current gender field claims to record biological sex.) Both these terms are problematic. The recorded sex of a student may vary between legal documents. The biological sex definition does not necessarily reflect how a student lives, or, when the indeterminate answer is removed, represent intersex students.

We can make a difference on this. HESA have stated in responses to other campaigners that they are rethinking their use of “legal” sex, and that the final coding of the form is still under consideration. They have questions on their website about the proposed changes and have stated via twitter that they welcome feedback. We should contribute to this effort, to ensure that all students are represented in national and institutional statistics in a non-discriminatory manner. This motion mandated: (1) The VP Ed Welfare to raise these issues with SMT before the implementation of these questions for 2012-2013. (2) The VP Ed Welfare to contact the HESA to raise these issues, and to seek clarification on what they mean by "legal" and "biological" sex. (3) The VP Ed Welfare to report back to the I&R senate on steps taken.

How is it that legal sex varies?
To give an example, HESA, following a FOI request stated that their “legal” sex category was intended to match staff information forms, where the field matches the binary options offered by HMRC. But ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) defines it as the sex on a person’s birth certificate, which is not necessarily the same as the sex of their birth.

Why is this something the SU, specifically, should be campaigning on?
The students union is responsible for representing students’ interests. To campaign on these issues is in the interests of students.

But I don’t know any students who this effects? (or similar)
Even if there were, hypothetically, no students who were individually negatively affected by the changes and known to be such, the Gender Equality Duty, set down in the Equality Act 2006, requires all public institutions, including further and higher education institutions, to be proactive. That is, they should actively promote equality between all students of any gender or none. If equality is important to the student body, we should be campaigning to ensure this general duty is met, by our institution and others.

If other people are campaigning, why should we?
In short, why shouldn’t we? It’s important that HESA get as much feedback as possible from the student body, particularly those affected by the changes, to ensure that the best steps forward are taken.

Motion to update Schedule 6: SURHUL Equality and Diversity

This motion probably requires less background. Schedule 6 is a section of the SU constitution concerning equality and diversity. Gender identity was not previously included as something students were protected from discrimination due to. This motion added gender identity to schedule six, and amended the harassment glossary to include ‘Intrusive questioning about someone’s ethnic origins, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or transition. Deliberately using incorrect pronouns or gendered language towards or about an individual.’

We expected protest against this motion, particularly the part about deliberate use of pronouns being harassment. “What if people made a genuine mistake?” people might ask.

You know when someone has made a genuine mistake. They apologise. They look awkward. And so on. “You _genuinely_ can’t tell some people’s gender identities though.” You also can’t tell some people’s religious beliefs by looking at them. This doesn’t mean making discriminatory remarks about religion is ok. (Just as a disclaimer, I am not trying to claim that religious and gender-based discrimination are entirely similar, they just provide a useful parallel in this aspect.)

“People have different ideas about what constitutes harassment. [Leading to a request to remove the clause regarding use of incorrect pronouns.]” We would argue that, if anything, this makes it MORE important to specifically outline what will not be tolerated. Without this specification, the use of pronouns could become a grey area. Instances of harassment would be more difficult to investigate, and this would make it more daunting for a student to feel able to report an instance. If the union is against the incorrect use of pronouns anyway, then it should be in the constitution, so that student members are aware that there could be disciplinary consequences should they harass someone else by deliberately using incorrect pronouns. So it lessens the possibility of harassment due to genuine ignorance, a plea itself a contested term, so probably best to avoid.

As it was, all we got was a thinly veiled reference to people passing motions to make things more politically correct :/.

No comments:

Post a Comment

When commenting, please remember that whilst this blog welcomes constructive discussion on feminism, we also aim to maintain a safe blogging space for our members and readers and therefore shall not publish abusive or discriminating comments or tolerate harassment.