The first thing to say is that the original case study does not make any reference to the wishes of the participants in a meeting but only supposes that the visiting speaker is insisting on a segregated audience. That Nicola Dandridge reframed the advice in this way suggests that UUK are less sure of their ground but are not prepared to backtrack. But whatever, the argument still does not fly. There is no universal human right to non-association and nor should there be. If you are the kind of person who does not want the company of a certain gender, creed or race, your only right is to avoid places where those individuals go. Universities are open publicly funded spaces and whether or not the speaker is a Muslim or Haredi Jew, or even if most of the audience are, the fundamental principle should be one of equal and open access to all parts of the auditorium.
Dandridge also insisted that universities were not being advised to “enforce” gender segregation, but this is disingenuous. Social norms will always compel people to follow the stated protocols and if you happen to be, for example, a Muslim woman in that situation there is zero chance that you will risk the disapprobation of your peers by bucking the system. The very act of offering segregated seating, even if mixed areas are also available, will mean that at least a proportion of the audience will be compelled to segregate whether they really want to or not.
In no other secular public space would this be considered an option. Try and imagine a cinema, a café, a train or a waiting room where the sexes were banished to opposite sides and you’ll get the point. It is not enough to claim that no-one is being disadvantaged. O.K women are not being sent to the back of the bus here but in the week when we are honouring the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela it is apposite to recall that “separate but equal” was the apologetics of apartheid and should have no place in 21st century society.