By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A union representing British lecturers has defended its decision to bar from special sessions of an equality conference representatives who are able-bodied, straight, white and male, saying the ban serves to create a "safe space" for discussion.

The University and College Union's (UCU) equality conference, scheduled for later in the year, typically focuses on topics such as the gender pay gap and discrimination at work.

As part of the annual meeting, the union organizes closed-door discussions for female, gay, disabled and black representatives of universities and colleges across the country.

Last week a motion to change the rule to allow all representatives to take part in all sessions was dismissed.

"Members felt that it was important that those from different minority groups should be able to meet to discuss the unique hurdles they face together," a UCU spokesman said in a statement.

Gargi Bhattacharyya, a professor of sociology at University East London who sits on UCU's Black members' standing committee, said the rules had been loosely enforced in the past with non-minority members occasionally taking part in closed sessions.

"I would be very surprised if it comes to a point of rejecting people from a meeting," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Like others, however, Bhattacharyya backed the rule saying people from minority groups felt more comfortable addressing issues, such as sexual harassment at work, with their peers.

Roddy Slorach, vice chair of a UCU committee of disabled members, described the controversy as "a storm in a tea cup", saying most members agreed with the union's policy.

Pura Ariza, a senior lecturer in education at Manchester Metropolitan University and part of the UCU's LGBT members' standing committee, also defended the union's position.

"Some people think we should all be together as we are going to fight for equality together. That's a really positive position," she said. "But I don't think that we have reached that stage, unfortunately, where there aren't equality issues and there isn't a need for what we call a safe space."

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)