In a story that has been making headlines across Canada all week, ideas of gender equality and human rights are being confronted by York University, Canada’s 3rd largest university located in Toronto, Ontario.
In September of last year it was requested of a sociology professor by a student registered in his online course to be exempt from participating in group work that would require the male student to interact with fellow female students.
In an email sent to the professor the student wrote: “One of the main reasons that I have chosen internet courses to complete my BA is due to my firm religious beliefs, and part of that is the intermingling between men and women … it will not be possible for me to meet in public with a group of women (the majority of my group) to complete some of these tasks.” The specific religion of the student has not been revealed.
The initial reaction of the professor, J. Paul Grayson, was to refuse the request expressing that he was worried about becoming an “accessory to sexism.” With the support of his departmental colleagues, Grayson stated that “accommodations for students will not be made if they contribute to material or symbolic marginalizations of other students, faculty or teaching assistants.”
However, the administration of York University has been in favour of supporting the side of the male student claiming that they are committed to respecting religious beliefs and one of the deciding factors “was that it was an online course where another student had previously been given permission to complete the course requirement off-campus." Grayson clarified that the aforementioned student was given permission because he was out of the country. York continues to suggest that their reasoning for supporting the student has been based on the fact that he was registered in an online course and has nothing to do with his religious based request.
In an interview with CBC News, Rhonda Lenton, Provost and vice-president academic for York explains this, and you can listen to a clip from that conversations here. Is it as cringe worthy for you as it was for me?!
Reacting to the administrative responses, Grayson presented a hypothetical scenario to another one of his classes to gauge the opinions of York students. The overwhelming response, by women in particular,was outrage. One student flipped the gender dynamic by writing “Men are known to sexually harass females, therefore I will not participate in any group work that a male is involved in within this class, I expect to be placed with only females. Silly, right? This situation is the exact same.”
With seventy percent of the students at York being female the professor’s perspective has received high level support with federal MP's who have made such statements as “It’s nothing short of ridiculous … We live in a country seeking gender equality.” Another particular statement also confirms that “Really, what the gentleman was asking for was to not be in a room with women and of course that unto itself was discriminatory in the sense it marginalizes women.”
What do you think? Is this an issue of gender discrimination and blatant sexism or justified action taken to accommodate religious beliefs?