A Sociological Case Study

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An event that happened at York University in Toronto recently has circulated the news and opinion pages. Most people have been essentially been saying the same things, but for reasons spread throughout a wide spectrum of spot on to hatefully wrong.

The basics of a story: a sociology course at York required group work. A student contacted the professor requesting that he not be placed in a group with women, because his religion forbade him from working in mixed-gender environments. (The sources I’ve read have not specified his religion; it’s largely irrelevant which one it is.)

Now, human rights legislation throughout Canada requires that people be accommodated in areas like housing, employment, services, and education if required by the basis of one of their protected statuses. This requirement to accommodate is a means of enforcing anti-discrimination, and protected statuses do include religion – but they also include sex or gender, which puts this situation as a balance between two protected groups. It’s very important to note that accommodation is only necessary up to the point of undue hardship, and the damages from discriminating against what would very likely be more than half the class, given gender distribution in higher education in general and the social sciences specifically, is a pretty undue hardship. This accommodation also has to be a genuine requirement for the person requesting it, and the person requesting it has to do their part in mitigating the need for accommodation through their own initiatives.

These are things a sociology professor would likely be familiar with, or other colleagues in the sociology department would have deeper knowledge to understand, evaluate, and explain the reasons this student’s request couldn’t be granted. The professor had a well-thought-out and thorough explanation examining the reasons this request was turned down and the rest of the department stood behind him. Consensus of sociologists is a pretty good sign that something is reasonable. The York University administration thought differently.

By this point the student already complied and worked with women, without much fuss after the professor discussed with him the reasons for this conclusion. But the administration decided that yes, students like this man must be accommodated in a gender-segregated work group. The professor in question speaks out about this, as do many colleagues and public commentators and many individual people who have read about this case.

The burden is on the student, as well, to demonstrate just how strictly according to his religion mixed gender education is forbidden. There are orthodox denominations of certain religions that still segregate genders in religious services and ceremonies, but whether this is extended to a work or school environment is up for debate. Complete segregation wouldn’t last, naturally, since procreation is fundamental to the survival of any society or culture. In no workplace would a rule stand that a man would be completely separated from women in carrying out his duties; even if physically separated by working at home or in a corner of the office out of sight of the nearest female colleague, he would still very likely encounter women through office communication or client interaction. There is just no practical way around this in the working world.

In the educational world, there are still gender-specific schools, or at least primary and secondary schools. I don’t know of any universities in Canada that still restrict student enrollment to one particular gender (and if there are, they would be coming across their own human rights issues with people of genders that don’t fit the outdated binary model), but if there were an all-male institution, a student should enroll there if he requires it. This institution would probably be religious anyway, and those who follow such a strict set of customs and beliefs would find many more problems with secular institutions anyway.

The student in this case understood all of this. He was smart and open minded enough to go to York University to begin with. York University administration is trying too hard to be open minded to fall into the void of senseless policy akin to that of Greendale Community College, and they’re damaging their reputation by not being very smart. This is a good test of the extent to which freedom and accommodation to practice freedoms can be granted. There are limitations to how society operates, to say nothing of the dehumanization that these restrictions imply. We have an economy that requires workers of all genders, and that requires education for all workers. In any private scenario – home life, choices in where to spend one’s time – a person can leave out whomever he or she wants on whatever basis. But in public life, please cooperate.

On the other end of things there is impending doom on human rights in Quebec, but that’s for another post…perhaps the next one.

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