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Jan 10, 2014

York University’s shameful decision

When it comes to gender equality, there's no grey area for accommodation

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

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Undue hardship
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 12:36:00 AM by Billy
I have to say, if accommodation in education works like accommodation at work, I do not see the university as having had much choice but the make the decision they did. I would imagine the school did consider whether it would be an undue hardship, and found it would not be. Could they not have put the student in an all-male group? Had an alternate work arrangement? They did for another student who requested accommodation, but for a different reason. With respect to the offense this gives to females at the school (which does appear to be considerable) they could have not told other students, or the media, that an accommodation measure was being made.

Whether you think this is how the system should work, that is a good question. But my understanding of accommodation is that this is how the system presently works, and York University had no choice to stay within the bounds of the law.
York University’s shameful decision
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 3:22:00 AM by Tony Adex
I think Todd has hit the nail on the head. It is very unfortunate that a higher institution of the caliber of York U would descend so low and have its Human Rights department succumb to such discrimination. It baffled me that the authority who gave a go ahead to that obnoxious request of the student — who requested not to work with women in a school group work — did not think of the phrase "undue hardship." There is no gainsaying the fact that by the time the women population is eliminated from the institution system, a great "undue hardship" would have been created for the school.
Not only that, the authority did not think smart enough to analyze the effect of such decisions on all the women population in the school. Human beings being who we are, once such a request is granted once, a whole can of other shameful so-called religious requests is opened. We can only imagine what will follow next!
I think this kind of decision requires investigation on the part of the institution to correct the authority that so concluded and guide against such occurrence in the future. In the meantime, while we are tying to correct the issues at hand by airing our views here, it is also important that we do not fall into the same pit that the authority of York U has fallen into. That would explain why I take some difference from Adam's comment here. It is another extreme of the issue at hand.
Tony Adex
Employment law student
"Gutless" about sums it up
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 3:53:00 PM by Brenda
This sounds like poorly disguised xenophobia or racism (see "Tip of the Iceberg"). Todd Humber has it right - the issue isn't immigration, it's gutless Canadians who cave at the slightest hint of conflict. Political correctness has sapped our ability to think critically and stand up for our own deeply held values of equality and inclusion.
Tip of the Iceberg
Friday, January 10, 2014 4:40:00 PM by Adam
This is only the tip of the iceberg, of the mess wrought by forty years of Trudeau-Mulroney immigration and multicultural policies. In many Canadian cities, you see first and second-generation immigrants in salwar kameez, saris, hijabs, niqabs, taqiyahs and turbans. You encounter well-off immigrants who never acquire a functional knowledge of English. Yet somehow these people--who refuse to adopt Canadian sartorial practices, or learn one of our official languages--are expected to conform to Canadian social norms, including those pertaining to gender relations. This is why culture clashes like this, and worse (Aqsa Parvez, Shafia family) are happening with increasing frequency. It's time to admit that Trudeau's multiculturalism should have been abandoned along with Disco, and that Canada should restrict immigration to people with compatible socio-cultural norms.