The issues of women-only spaces, sex-based rights and the sex/gender question, have polarised the feminist and LGBT movements. The Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) is an umbrella body that represents the interests of all women’s organisations that make up 'the women’s sector' in the UK. The discussion and consequences of the various positions on these questions have sharpened over the last few years. After participating in and following the conversation within the sector, conducting our own internal organizational discussions on the matter, and collecting evidence on the positions and unique challenges of our membership, WRC has prepared this statement to clarify our position.

Sex and Gender definitions 

There are many evolving theories about sex and gender. We think this question is very much ‘up for debate’ and the outcome could have an impact on the very existence of single-sex, women-only service provision as it currently stands (which is already threatened by funding cuts and gender-neutral policies), and the historical and hard-fought for legislation around sex-based rights. For example, access to legal safe abortion and the criminalization of rape within marriage.

WRC maintains that there is a difference between sex and gender – with sex being a biological fact of having certain chromosomes and bodily organs, upon which gender is inscribed. We do not think that the fact that some people have a gender identity that does not conform to their sex means that sex itself is a social construct.

Because of the way society is organised, women’s biological realities (e.g., weaker physical strength compared to men and ability to become pregnant and bear children) have been, and still are, major social disadvantages. Men and a male-centered society continue to use our biological differences to oppress us. Replacing sex as a legal category with ‘gender identity ’erases the biological differences that are the basis of a lot of sexist practices. It therefore undermines our ability to talk about women’s particular experiences of sexism. How would we identify those crimes which women are more vulnerable to, such as sex-selective abortion that has ‘disappeared’ 23 million girls worldwide? Or female genital mutilation of babies and young girls? Or child marriage? Sexual exploitation and discrimination affects women in particular ways and we need to be able to discuss and organise around these issues on our own terms, without censure.

 On single-sex, women-only services 

Generally, the Equality Act doesn’t allow for discrimination against those with ‘protected characteristics ’who want to use a service. However, there are many areas where exceptions are made in the Act, such as single-sex wards in hospitals, single-sex schools etc. If you are providing a service, under paragraph 27 of Schedule 3 of the Act, you can provide it for women only. It states that if the ‘targeted provision is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim ’and the services meet one of six conditions (for example only people of that sex need the service), it is lawful to provide it to women alone.

On the basis that the Equality Act, however imperfectly, does cover the rights of women’s organisations to remain single-sex (through the single-sex exceptions), we would defend it. WRC believe it is important to defend the principle of single-sex spaces, which is inherently exclusionary of half of the human population, as it is based on sex characteristics. This may be ‘crude ’in the sense that not all individual men are violent and oppressive, but it should be acceptable on the basis that: men, (characterised as having certain physical/biological attributes), generally have a physical strength and social power as a sex group that is denied to most women in a similar situation; and all statistics show that men in general perpetrate violence against women at very high levels. This is why women developed their own spaces, to heal - away from all men, regardless of individual culpability. These facts should be acknowledged and respected, rather than seen as ‘discriminatory. ’

Saying that, we also believe that more needs to be done to clarify permissible reasons for single-sex exceptions within the legislation. Currently, the wording is rather vague and leaves the burden of justification and implementation on women’s organisations, which are already severely overstretched. WRC supports the sector to implement the single-sex exceptions, which allow women’s organisations to remain single-sex. This is primarily in response to the increasing push for gender neutrality in service provision by funders, i.e. opening up services for everyone, irrespective of sex, i.e. men. Funders and commissioners of domestic and sexual violence services often insist on those services being open for everyone because they have misinterpreted the Equality Act and believe this is necessary to avoid charges of discrimination. This wider context is important because the exceptions should not be seen as a way to keep trans people out as much as it is about retaining the autonomy of women’s organisations to make their own decisions and protect their services against budgetary pressures that push them towards delivering services to men. All feminist allies should understand and support this.

Transgender people should unequivocally be able to access specialist services that meet their often complex needs. Therefore, where the protected characteristics of sex and gender reassignment conflict, another space/service is required underpinned by an ethos of ‘led-by-and-for ’to meet the distinct needs of each protected group without violating the rights of either group.

Women’s organisations, many of which are WRC members, already are trans-responsive, if not trans-inclusive. By this, we mean they may already provide services to trans women, sometimes separately from other clients, or, after careful assessment, they may have decided they do not have the specialist skills to support trans people and signpost them to more appropriate specialist services. In all cases, they have weighed up the consequences for their service and other women using that service. They have consulted their staff and service users. We fully support, respect and trust women’s organisations to do what they think is best for their service, based on their judgement, capacities and resources. However, as we have already mentioned, we would like better guidance and clarity from the EHRC around the Equality Act and the basis for the single-sex exceptions in order to ensure women’s organisations are fully protected under current law if they do decide to remain single-sex.

The role of the state and respectful disagreement 

The state should not be the main arbiters in this discussion, but the women’s sector is caught between a rock and a hard place: knowing that the law and the criminal justice system has not been effective at preventing or reducing male violence, at the same time recognising the need for a clear legal framework if we are to begin to protect women’s rights. We know that the state has, and continues to fail women, and trans people. Yet both sides try to bring in the law to defend their point of view. The alternative should be a reasoned and respectful debate within the movement and the sector. However, the way these discussions have been conducted has left many feeling angry and silenced. Difference of opinion on the issue of women-only services and how this is defined should be managed in a respectful way without having to resort to accusations of ‘erasing trans identity'.

WRC does not consider the right for women’s organisations to choose who they consider women in the context of their service provision capabilities to be transphobic. Rather, it is a decision based on what women deem necessary in light of their experiences, often of male violence, oppression and trauma.

What we want 

  • We want to see clarification of the single-sex exceptions under the Equality Act 2010 and the removal of the burden of implementing them from women’s organisations 
  • We want to see consistent and clear evidence-based definitions of ‘sex ’(male/female and a protected characteristic) and ‘gender ’(constructs of masculinity and femininity), in all communications and policy.
  • Funding and capacity for the women’s sector to provide single-sex services has been the single biggest issue we have had to contend with. Specialist services for lesbian women, black and minoritised women, and trans people are losing out to larger, generic organisations. We call on all feminists and allies to support us in demanding sufficient funding for specialist, ‘led-by-and-for ’organisations, so that all of our needs can be met.