By Todd Humber
Gutless. That’s the only word that comes to mind when one thinks of how York University handled an accommodation request from a sociology student who wanted to be excused from group work with women earlier this month, citing religious grounds.
The Toronto-based university’s human rights centre gave a thumbs-up to the request, which stunned Paul Grayson, the sociology professor, who wanted to deny the request but went through appropriate channels first. It also offended pretty much every Canadian in the process.
Grayson, to his tremendous credit, dug his heels in and ignored the university. He denied the request after talking with other professors, at which point the student completed the group work with the female students. It’s not often you’ll get applauded for insubordination, but hats off to Grayson — who probably won’t (and shouldn’t) face any official sanction for his action.
If we look at this through a strict human resources lens, the university’s decision to accommodate this request is troubling. Post-secondary institutions are supposed to prepare students for the working world — yes, there are plenty of other good things that happen in the ivory towers but, when you boil it all down, that is the main purpose of higher education.
If this type of thinking reigns, just what kind of workers are universities handing over to employers?
Individuals that think, yes, you can be excused from working with women? That, yes, you can trample on gender rights because working opposite a female somehow makes you feel uncomfortable?
And let’s not forget about the impact this has on female students, particularly ones pursuing careers in historically male-dominated industries. Let’s not fool ourselves — gender equality may seem like a given today, but you don’t have to turn the calendar back a single day to find examples of ongoing systemic discrimination.
Religion-based accommodation has been a huge issue for employers in recent years when it comes to human rights, and there are plenty of grey areas where organizations struggle to find the balancing point between respecting religious freedoms and the practicalities of running a profitable business.
Human rights tribunals across Canada have, for the most part, done a good job of trying to set definable boundaries of what is and isn’t worthy of accommodation. Observing holidays, respecting religious dress and allowing time and space for prayers are some areas where progress has been made — and that can only be applauded.
But there are some black-and-white issues when it comes to accommodation, and gender equity is right at the top of that list. The idea that someone can refuse to work with members of the opposite sex, and get a thumbs up for that behaviour, is disturbing if it happens anywhere. The idea that it almost happened — if not for a strong-minded, level-headed professor — at a publicly funded, secular university in Canada is a disgrace.
There are far too many parts of the world where women face discrimination, where education is forbidden or frowned upon, where they aren’t even allowed to drive a car.
That’s not Canada, and that type of thinking can’t be allowed anywhere where the Maple Leaf flies — not in schools and certainly not in organizations.
We all want to respect religious differences. There’s no debating that, and banning workers from wearing appropriate religious symbols — as Quebec is trying to do with its proposed values charter — is wrong.
But religious accommodation has its limits. To borrow some legal terminology, employers have a duty to accommodate a worker to the point of “undue hardship.” As soon as someone says, “I don’t want to work with women,” that undue hardship flag needs to go up quickly.
Any organization that hums and haws on that front can only be called one thing: Gutless.
Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.