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Report on Business Careers columnist Leah Eichler (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Report on Business Careers columnist Leah Eichler (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

LEAH EICHLER

When two rights collide, who's wrong? Add to ...

A hypothetical workplace scenario keeps playing in my head: A professional in the knowledge industry, say a Web developer or designer, is hired to work remotely for a company. The employee’s expectation is that this will be a virtual relationship. (This arrangement is far from unusual: I hired a contract worker two years ago and have yet to meet her in person. In fact, we’ve never even spoken on the phone.) Then the company evolves and suddenly the dynamic changes. The employer asks for an in-person meeting, but this hard-working, remote employee asks to be excused because his or her religious beliefs prohibit interaction with the opposite sex.

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What is a manager to do?

This scenario comes to mind after a York University student asked to be excused from group work, saying his religious beliefs prevent him from interacting with women. His professor rejected the request – as I believe he should have – and the student abided by the professor’s decision. Yet, the dean overruled, ensuring that the student, and the rest of the community, understands that interacting with women can be voluntary. This case underlines the risk of overintellectualizing cultural sensitivities and, consequently, spells a failure for women’s rights.

I support diversity in the workplace and often find myself rallying behind the needs of minority groups when they conflict with traditional corporate culture. But we need to quickly draw a line here.

The ramifications of allowing religious practices to trump the rights of women are such that it simply should not be accommodated. It would provoke howls of outrage if we substituted any other ethnic or minority group for women (that is, the student had said interacting with Jews or blacks was not possible). This is a clear-cut case of political correctness gone awry

What happens if, next year, five students request permission to work only with men, or decide that taking instructions from a female professor contravenes their beliefs? In a few years, those students will be in the work force looking for opportunities to avoid interacting with women. Others might be encouraged to feel that the needs of a particular minority group should supersede the rights of women.

This scenario is not that far-etched, said Lisa Mattam, principal of Mattam Group, a Toronto-based management consulting firm, and an expert on diversity and the advancement of women. She has seen companies try to accommodate religious men who do not want to meet alone with a women by having others present in the room, and calls this practice “a slippery slope.”

“For me, as a huge advocate of both inclusion and women, we take the entire diversity movement backward when we begin to marginalize one group for the sake of another,” Ms. Mattam said.

The consequences of these requests, while unintended, can also lead to an organizational climate of distrust, discrimination and bias. Some companies might shy away from candidates perceived to be religious for fear of having to manage such issues, she warned.

“What will happen to the female CEO when a religious belief doesn’t allow her to have a one-on-one conversation with her employee?” Ms. Mattam noted. “And are we just inadvertently telling women – that despite all of your progress, intelligence and capability – in some instances, because you are a women, you will never be equal to a man?”

Natalie MacDonald, a founding partner at Rudner MacDonald, a boutique law firm in Toronto specializing in employment law, said the York student’s request for accommodation under the guise of religion marginalizes and perpetuates discrimination against women, setting gender equality back several years.

“I know of no religion that could possibly legitimize such a request that would preclude a male student from working with female students in a group setting. And, if there were such a religion, the fact that it would marginalize women, and perpetuate discriminatory conduct against them, should be sufficient to deny the request,” she said.

Ms. MacDonald added that she finds it “disturbing that this kind of discriminatory request could have been made in Canada in 2014, let alone granted by the head of an institution of higher learning.”

The incident at York should become a cautionary tale, not a professional precedent. I’m an ardent advocate for religious freedoms. But if religious or cultural beliefs in any way reverse the gains earned by the women’s rights movement, count me out.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah@rallyyourgoals.com

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