Lecturer objects to university’s gender identity policy which describes refusal to use pronouns as ‘unlawful’

South East Technological University launches new gender expression and identity policy

A lecturer has told her university that she will refuse to comply with its new gender identity policy on the basis that it describes refusal to use students’ or staff members’ preferred pronouns as an example of “unlawful discrimination or harassment”.

The South East Technological University (SETU) launched its policy on Wednesday, saying it is aimed at creating an inclusive atmosphere where all staff and students are free from discrimination or harassment.

Colette Colfer, a lecturer in world religions, said while she had no personal objection to using anyone’s preferred pronoun or name, her main issue of concern was the compulsory nature of the policy.

“I support the broad aim of the policy, but not the methods. All students should be treated fairly and equally. But the methods of this policy could result in discrimination against those who do not subscribe to gender identity theory and who believe that biology is more relevant than gender identity in matters such as women’s sports and changing rooms,” she said.


“I really want to stress that I will support policies that are evidence-based and that allow for a diversity of viewpoints. But if we’re going to have policies in higher education institutions, they must be based on evidence and the latest research. Otherwise, we fall into an ideological trap which has negative consequences for everyone, including young people with gender dysphoria.”

The university’s new Gender Identity and Expression policy was officially launched at an event on its Waterford campus on Wednesday and will be marked by an event at its Carlow campus on Thursday.

Prof Veronica Campbell, president of SETU said the university believed that a sense of belonging is essential for an individual to thrive in higher education.

“A supportive university environment is crucial to enable a person to embrace learning and fulfil their potential both academically and professionally,” she said. “The launch of the Gender Identity and Expression policy is a roadmap for SETU in its continued efforts to recognise the strength of diversity as an organisation.”

The document states that SETU is committed to non-discrimination, equality and the maintenance of safe and collegial working and learning spaces. It adds that the policy, which is intended to cover face-to-face interactions and online communications, was drawn up recognising the legal and regulatory framework within which the university operates.

It says the policy was drafted with regard to all applicable laws, such as the Employment Equality Acts, and states that examples of unlawful discrimination or harassment because of a person’s gender identity include, among others, “refusing to address a person by their correct gender pronoun or new preferred name”.

Ms Colfer said she was concerned over what appeared to be a misinterpretation of equality laws and said many other staff shared her views but were afraid to speak out.

“Are all staff and students at higher education institutions required, by law, to use a person’s preferred pronouns? Is it legal for a higher education institution to dictate to staff and students that they must do this?” she said.

“I have sent them an email and said in writing that I will not agree with being compelled. I know there are other staff who feel the same way, but the level of fear is enormous. They fear for their jobs and careers. I know that. Some are too nervous to even express it in an email.”

SETU’s new policy forms part of a wider bid to secure more advanced Athena Swan Charter accreditation, which is part of official higher education policy in Ireland.

The charter was launched in Ireland in 2015 with a specific remit to address gender equality and has since expanded to include consideration of the experience of trans staff and students. Higher Education Authority policies require attainment of Athena Swan certification for universities to be eligibile for State research funding.

One of the principles it commits higher education institution to achieving is “fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine and affirm their gender, and to implementing inclusive and effective policies and practices that are cognisant of the lived experiences and needs of trans and non-binary people”.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent