Sex, Gender and Academic Freedom: a guide for university managers
by Shereen Benjamin and Neil Thin
It is likely that all staff and students at Edinburgh hope for a social world in which people are not unfairly disadvantaged because of their sex or their transgender identification. If universities are to be spaces for constructive debate on contentious social issues such as sex and gender, we must find ways of discussing disagreements and policy options calmly and honestly. This blog explores the current problems and presents a case for stronger managerial support for academic freedom.
Disagreements about the politics of sex and gender are a flashpoint in many universities at the moment, including here at the University of Edinburgh. As some of us wrote in 2019, the debate in universities over how sex and gender should be defined in law and policy departs at times from the established academic standards and conventions regarding evidence, analysis and discourse. Academics and students who are critical of gender identity theory in their teaching, writing, research and/or public engagement typically find themselves the targets of harassment and discrimination: this list compiled by Professor Michael Biggs at Oxford links to over 100 incidents of such targeting that have made the press. Beneath the tip of this iceberg are cases that never hit the headlines, and the many academics and students who self-censor. These include more junior and less secure colleagues who cannot afford to take the risks associated with being targeted, and who choose either to comply with the demands of activists, or to teach or research something else. Some examples appear on the GC Academia website, in the form of testimonies by anonymous academics and students, many of them based at Edinburgh.
It is not the purpose of this blog to consider at length the complexities of the state of academic freedom in relation to sex and gender: we direct readers who would like to consider the issue in more depth to this 2021 article by Suissa and Sullivan, which provides an excellent and detailed analysis. Nor is it our intention to provide a detailed account of the substance of the controversy. Instead, we want to outline the basics for university managers who have not engaged thus far, and provide them with some suggestions for action.
Why do we think university managers need to understand at least the basics of the substantive issue? In May 2022, the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, Professor Robert Van der Noort, published a strong, well-informed defence of academic freedom and freedom of speech in relation to sex and gender. It was a response to events of the previous week, when members of the University of Reading had objected to a talk by a visiting academic, Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, using allegations that have become familiar in this debate, primarily that giving a platform for views that are critical of gender identity theory makes a campus unsafe for trans students and staff. Professor Van de Noort’s detailed response was published less than two weeks after the event in question, suggesting he already understood the issues, and was committed to acting decisively.
The organisation Sex Matters published an account of events at Reading, asking what the University had got right. They noted that Reading had “set the tone from the top” with senior leaders engaging fully with the substance of Dr Lawford-Smith’s talk. Professor Van der Noort’s statement was prompt, detailed and thorough. This is, sadly, somewhat unusual in the sector. Our experience at Edinburgh has been less positive: statements made by University of Edinburgh leaders in the press in relation to incidents around academic freedom have been vague and sketchy, most recently in response to our first public engagement event as Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom. Issues reported internally have typically met with delayed and formulaic responses, and little action.
We agree with the Sex Matters assessment that substantive engagement from management is essential to upholding academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses. In the rest of this blog we set out what we think university leaders should know and understand as a starting point, and having achieved that understanding, some of the actions they might helpfully take.
Understanding the conflict over sex and gender
In our experience of interactions with managers at Edinburgh, they appear to have fundamentally misunderstood the difference between upholding the human rights of transgender-identifying people (which universities are legally and morally obliged to do), and the beliefs and demands of gender identity theory (which should be a matter for good-faith discussion). Because of that misunderstanding, managers mistake the site of the conflict as ‘the trans issue’ and having failed to understand the underlying causes, mostly fail to deal effectively with its consequences.
The conflict is not about the human rights of transgender-identifying people. Equality legislation protects transgender-identifying people from harassment and discrimination, and universities are bound to comply with that legislation. We suggest that universities also have a moral as well as a legal obligation to ensure that everyone’s human rights are respected: addressing and upholding the rights of all is consistent with seeking to make universities places where truth can be pursued without fear nor favour in research, teaching/learning and public engagement.
In a liberal society, upholding the rights of transgender-identifying people to live without impediment is not contentious. A recent report from Common Ground found that “the public want to be accommodating to trans people” and that an overwhelming majority want to find practical solutions to specific conflicts where they exist. This is to be welcomed. In playing their part as employers and education providers, university managers might (for instance) seek to ensure that recruitment and promotion processes do not discriminate against trans-identifying people, they might enact policies that enable time off for staff and students for transition-related healthcare, they might simplify the means by which individuals can change their names in the data held on them, they might ensure provision of mixed-sex ‘third spaces’ alongside single-sex toilet and changing facilities, and they might set out means by which trans-identifying people are to be protected from harassment. Such measures should be seen as uncontroversial, and universities’ institutional position should be to support them.
The current controversy is not about trans rights. It is about whether gender identity theory should be considered beyond question and unassailable on university campuses. Gender identity theory is based on an unfalsifiable (i.e. unscientific) belief, which people are entitled to hold, which proposes that all individuals have an innate sense of maleness or femaleness (or both or neither) and that this innate sense, known as gender identity, trumps objective biological sex when it comes to designating an individual as a man, or woman, or something else. Not all transgender-identifying people hold this belief, and not everyone who holds this belief identifies as transgender.
From this core belief – that all individuals have a gender identity which trumps biological sex – flows a set of contested and contestable ideas which have practical implications. There is disagreement over language in this area, but for the purposes of this blog we are using the term ‘gender identity theory’ to describe them. One of the most controversial aspects of gender identity theory is its redefinition of ‘woman’ from the current dictionary definition of ‘adult human female’ (where female is understood to indicate biologically female) to ‘anyone whose gender identity is that of a woman’. As one of the associated slogans goes, “trans women are women”. If, indeed, trans women are women, there can be no reason for not treating biological males identically to women if they say they are women, in any circumstance. The implications of such a redesignation of what it means to be a man, a woman, or something else, are profound.
Lobby groups have worked hard behind the scenes for around 30 years, and more recently in the open, to persuade law-makers and institutions to adopt principles of gender identity theory in law and in policy, advocating for re-definitions of sex and gender, and asserting that biological sex should no longer be seen as relevant. The implications of such a redefinition are of interest to academics in a host of disciplines, including social policy, education, law, criminal justice, philosophy, social work, nursing and many others.
A term popularly used to describe those who are critical of gender identity theory is ‘gender-critical’, and for simplicity we will use that designation, though not everyone who is critical of gender identity ideology uses that term to describe themselves. The gender-critical view holds inter alia that re-defining ‘woman’ from ‘biologically female’ to ‘anyone who feels like a woman’ has implications for women’s rights in those places where sex matters, which include data collection, sports, and single-sex services and facilities such as hospital wards, prisons and hostel accommodation, and has consequences for those lesbians and gay men who consider themselves same-sex attracted (e.g. lesbians who wish to rule out of their dating pools self-identifying male ‘lesbians’ who have intact male genitalia) and in relation to the medicalisation of children and adolescents.
It is important not to conflate gender identity theory with a commitment to the human rights of transgender-identifying people: most people who would be described as gender-critical support trans rights while being critical of gender identity theory.
Universities’ appropriate institutional position on gender identity theory is neutrality, so that academics and students can research, teach and discuss the theory itself and its many implications. Universities should uphold the right of their members to hold supportive, critical and agnostic positions on gender identity theory, and for their right to argue for those positions according to normal academic conventions.
Those who hold a more extreme version of gender identity theory contend that expressing any disagreement with, or critique of, the theory in whole or part, and/or arguing for the continued relevance of biological sex (a characteristic protected in law) is bigoted and transphobic, and will do actual harm to transgender-identifying people.
At Edinburgh and many other universities, this contention has been manifested in an insistence that there can be ‘no debate’, and has seen false accusations of transphobia made against academics who openly critique gender identity theory in their teaching, research and/or public engagement. Such accusations may be made within departments, they may be made on social media, they may be circulated via email lists with hundreds of recipients, or they may be made in the local press. They can do a great deal of harm to social relationships and to reputations and thereby careers, particularly in the case of younger colleagues who may be on fixed-term contracts or in junior grades seeking promotion. They produce a climate of fear and self-censorship. It is therefore no co-incidence that at Edinburgh and most other universities, those academics who openly express gender-critical or similar views are typically older, and not in pursuit of promotion or of more secure contracts.
Worryingly, versions of the ‘no-debate’ position have been promoted by the lobby group Stonewall, which is influential in universities via their membership of its Diversity Champions and Workplace Equality Index schemes. Institutional membership of these schemes means that university staff are trained to accept gender identity theory as an unassailable truth, and universities are ‘graded’ on the extent to which they incorporate Stonewall’s view of the law as they would like it to be (which is not always correct) into policies. University LGBT+ networks play a significant part in a university’s Stonewall ranking and are often included in high-level committees and consulted by managers: where those networks are run (as is often the case) by individuals who hold a ‘no-debate’ position, they may exert a disproportionate influence, and managers may be unwilling to challenge them.
The no-debate position is intolerant and dogmatic. It seeks to make a relatively new theory, based on an unfalsifiable belief, unassailable in universities. It relies on emotive and hyperbolic accusations that are impossible to answer, because any attempt by the targets of such accusations to refute them is taken as proof of that person’s transphobia. University managers need to understand that attempts to silence views are in one direction only. There have been no documented attempts, as far as we are aware, of gender-critical academics or students attempting to silence anyone advocating for gender identity theory in their research, teaching, public engagement or in general on campus. Attempts to silence gender-critical academics are routine: the history of our recent event on sex, gender and schools is one such example. Many others have been brought to the attention of managers behind the scenes, though action is rarely taken.
The institutional response to the no-debate position, and to the deployment of tactics based on no-debate, should be a robust defence of academic freedom and freedom of expression, and a refusal to allow false accusations and other tactics of intimidation and harassment.
Where university leaders are clear about the difference between transgender rights and gender identity theory, and understand how conflation of the two is used by extremists to impede academic freedom, then attempts to silence the gender-critical position can be effectively handled. Where university managers are unclear about the difference, and conflate trans rights with gender identity theory, conflict goes unresolved and a climate of fear and self-censorship is allowed to exist.
We have suggested that universities’ informed institutional positions should be as follows:
1) Supportive of the human rights of transgender-identifying people, and committed to taking action to ensure those rights are upheld
2) Neutral on gender identity theory and related questions
3) Opposed to any attempts to close down academic freedom using ‘no-debate’ (or any other) tactics
A necessary first step is for university leaders to confidently articulate that position, showing understanding of the substantive issue, as Professor Van der Noort did at Reading.
Given the climate that already exists at many universities, it is unlikely that simply articulating these positions will be enough to protect academic freedom on sex and gender. We suggest the university managers should consider some or all of the following as further starting points, depending on context:
Appoint an academic freedom champion as a senior leadership position which might additionally be mirrored at department level, and empower the person (or people) holding that role to take prompt, robust action where academic freedom is challenged
Ensure a reporting mechanism for breaches of academic freedom so that they can be investigated and resolved quickly
Integrate the teaching of skills and dispositions associated with robust, good faith, evidence-based discussion and disagreement into curricula at all levels
End any formal partnerships with Stonewall or other lobby groups
Where staff have been trained by Stonewall or similar lobby groups promoting gender identity theory as unassailable, ensure that further training counteracts any such impression
Where a university sponsors an LGBT+ network operating under university branding and tasked with being representative of all LGBT+ employees, make it clear to officers that their channels of communication should not be used to promote gender identity theory as unassailable, or to promote or use ‘no-debate’ tactics
Ensure that middle managers and leaders are well informed about the university’s institutional position, understand it, and are able to act accordingly
To conclude, we would like to quote from the testimony of a University of Edinburgh colleague who has been silenced and who wrote of her experiences for the GC academia website:
“It seems incredible to me to recount this, but that is the level of fear which now exists around even mentioning biological sex in some areas of the university. Not only that mentioning it is “bad”, but that certain people will actively hunt down and harass those who do so.
I don’t know if senior management have any idea of the scale of censorship feminists are subject to on a daily basis at this university. It is suffocating. There are vague statements about supporting academic freedom, but nothing is done to prevent the bullying of women such as the colleague I emailed, who do speak out. Most lesbians I know actively avoid the staff pride network as openly hostile to women who do not consider male bodied people with a penis as potential sexual partners. Then again, all the equalities policies here are dictated by Stonewall. So perhaps they are perfectly well aware, and just don’t care.”
We hope that managers at Edinburgh and elsewhere will prove this colleague wrong, and demonstrate that they care enough to become informed about the issues and take action. We are, of course, ready and willing to help.
We have necessarily simplified some issues, and omitted many others. We recommend the following books as further reading for anyone wanting to know and understand more:
Critical of gender identity ideology
Bindel, J. (2021) Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. London, Constable.
Joyce, H. (2021) Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. London, Oneworld Publications.
Lawford-Smith, H. (2022) Gender-Critical Feminism. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Stock, K. (2021) Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. London, Fleet.
Supportive of gender identity ideology
Faye, S. (2021) The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. London, Penguin.
Hines, S. (2018) Is Gender Fluid? A Primer for the 21st Century. London, Thams & Hudson.
Lavery, G. (2022) Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis. London, Daunt Books.