york university, women, and equality conundrums.

York University has had it particularly bad in the last few years. After multiple sexual assault incidents on campus and, only a few months ago, being called “a hunting ground for sexual predators” by Toronto Life, its reputation for protecting female students is quite low.

It appears they aren’t looking to make a case for themselves any time soon. A student at the university taking an online sociology course recently requested he be excused from a group project that required interaction with female students. He cited religious beliefs for the request. In most cases the natural reaction would be to balk at such a request and to respond in much the same way his professor, Paul Grayson, originally did.

It was refreshing to know that a professor understood the ramifications of such a request and the extended impact approving it could cause. My first instinct was to congratulate both the professor and the university for making the correct decision until I read on to discover that York University had not, in fact, supported the professor’s decision.

I understand that there is a duty that every educational institution has to accommodate various religions, races, genders, and sexual orientations. It isn’t an easy task. There are bound to be times when conflicts arise and a general human rights debate ensues. In this instance I understand that I am biased given the fact that I am not only a woman but also one who is sensitive to gender equality issues but I am going to try to put that aside for a second. My problem is this:

Is the whole idea of providing higher education, beyond the base level of books-and-notes itself, not to prepare the students for life? Is it not there to not only teach, instruct, and mentally develop students, but to also create long-lasting social skills that can be taken with the students into the “real world”? How can a decision to back a request to not interact with a certain gender aid this student in the rest of their life?

I am pleased to know that the student continued on with the project at Professor Grayson’s request and completed the project. Perhaps it has helped broaden their horizons although I doubt it greatly. But if Grayson had submitted to York’s directive to uphold the student’s request, what lesson would have been taught?

The Dean of the faculty of liberal arts and professional studies supplied the opinion that the student should have had his desire appealed to by saying that it did not have a “substantial impact” on the rights of other students. The university also argued that the student also should have been accommodated since it was an online course that the student thought wouldn’t require campus attendance. In an interview on Metro Morning for CBC, Rhonda Lenton (Provost at York) said:

“We are committed to gender equity; we do not prioritize one set of rights over the others. If we had made the accommodation based on the student’s request around the religious accommodation, I could understand why people might feel that way, but that was not the defining factor.”

The notion that any set of rights were not prioritized over another is ridiculous. Perhaps I am letting my biases seep in here at this point but I cannot help but feel my rights as a woman were put on a lower rung along with the rights of female students at York. The impact to this sort of decision can and should be substantial especially for the university itself. I find it hard to believe that if the student had made the same request but swapped out “women” for “black people” or any other race, the university would have had a different opinion on the matter. Or at least I would hope that, as unfortunate as it is, women are the only group being marginalized in these situations by the administration at York University. At least then it’s a less steep hill to climb but a large one nonetheless.

It makes me wonder, however, why it was okay in the university’s eyes for this student to make such a request. If I had been one of the females in that group and heard about this situation, I would not have wanted to work with that student either. But I would have because that is part of the world we live in and I would never make a request to be omitted from a group situation based on someone’s religion. As an institution that hasn’t done much for itself in the way of making female students feel safe and respected, an issue like this makes me wonder where their priorities lie. The excuse of it being an online course as a legitimate reason for this to have happened is completely ridiculous to me: more than half of business and social interaction is now online – just because you are not seeing someone in person no longer means that you do not have to interact with them. If anything, the fact that it was an online course should be more of a reason for the university to take notice of something like this.

I hope that after the actions of York have been put in the spotlight during a controversy such as this aspiring post-secondary students think twice about their applications to this school. I could never call for a total boycott of the institution but until they make it clear where their priorities lie, especially in the equality factors of education, I would never consider giving them my thousands of dollars. Perhaps it is too much to ask for but a document stating their mission in regards to equality across the board might just be what is in order to save their reputation.

And then they have to uphold it.

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2 thoughts on “york university, women, and equality conundrums.

  1. Nathan MacDonald says:

    While I understand your frustration, I think it may be useful to put this in context. I lived among a religious community in Toronto where non-related or unmarried women and men don’t touch one another, study with one another, sing in front of one another, dance with one another etc… This is all due to that religious community’s standards of modesty and “building a wall” around interactions that could lead to premarital sex or marital infidelity. This could just as easily been a female student asking not to be forced to interact with men for the very same religious reasons.It is for this reason that I don’t think it’s a women’s issue. It is a question of religious versus secular values and whether we are willing to respect differences when these mores appear inconsistent from our culturally biased perspective.

    Most of the people raised in this conservative religious community I referenced live in their own “real world”. They seek and find employment within their own community and cater to the needs of their own community in order to avoid the misunderstandings and conflicts when cultures clash. This has been the case for generations. Respectfully, I my view, this is not an issue of gender inequality because, as I said, women and men are equally restricted from co-ed fraternization in at least one of North Toronto’s more sizable religious communities.

    The solution for many of these families who wish for their children to receive post secondary education is to enroll their children in online courses in order to pursue their studies. I know hundreds of students who avail themselves of York’s distance education program for just this reason. If half way through their degree, they are told that they can no longer protect their modesty, I know that some would take a different decision than the one this student took and would withdraw from studies. I know the daughter of a friend of mine would have done just that as she is very committed to her faith. Lucky for her, she finished her English degree without running into a situation like this.

    For the University, forcing this issue would mean that a significant number of students would withdraw from studies. Your point about online interaction being interaction just the same is correct but doesn’t address the religious prohibition which is likely at issue. Without understanding the nature of the religious tenet that the student is trying to respect and the underlying philosophy behind it, you run the risk of drawing erroneous conclusions about what accommodations ought to be acceptable to them and whether anything nefarious is going on to begin with. This is why human rights cases are complicated and context is everything. If I examined this only from the sound bites the media provides, I would very likely agree with your view. I have, however, seen another side of this issue and thought I would share some food for thought.

    • caitycakes says:

      I appreciate your other side of the story – it definitely does put another spin to it that the media has not provided. It is hard to share an opinion without sounding as if you are ignoring that there is, in fact, another side to every story which I am fully aware of in this case.

      However, I see this as an overall equality issue on both sides. If it had been a female student asking not to work with men I would have felt the same way. I also believe that we need to respect the rights of certain religions but there needs to be an understanding that some stipulations may not be able to be met given the nature of a situation.

      Your comment has, however, given me more to think about here and it leaves me wondering how we are able to reconcile the two sides to this situation without leaving at least one side of it feeling as if they were slighted or misunderstood.

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