Too shy to go to class with women? That’s not a legit human rights complaint

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

A University of Toronto student who failed a women's studies course because he was too shy to go to class has had his human rights complain dismissed, prompting yet another debate about gender politics in a Toronto school.

The case, which was dismissed outright by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, pits one male student's “individual preference” as a shy person not to attend a course filled with women against a gender studies professor’s decision not to bend the courses grading structure to accommodate the male students aversion.

And the debate isn’t even close.

The debate stems from a human rights complaint made by Wongene Daniel Kim, a University of Toronto student who in the Fall of 2012 signed up to participate in a Women & Gender Studies course.

"On the first day of class, the applicant looked into the classroom and noticed that there were approximately 40 female and no male students inside. He was too uncomfortable and shy to enter the classroom because he was the only man," a tribunal ruling explains.

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Kim contacted the professor and asked to have the marking scheme, specifically the 15 per cent of the final grade that relied on attendance and course participation, adjusted "given his insecurities which made him uncomfortable participating" in a class made up entirely of women.

The request was denied and Kim received no marks for class participation. The marks he received on class assignments were not high enough to secure him a passing grade.

Some other issues were at play, but the key tenet of the matter is that Kim was too shy to attend a class of women and it led him to fail the course. He argued to the human rights tribunal that there was a failure to accommodate a need arising from his gender.

As the tribunal noted, this was not an issue of gender. (Indeed, there are some university students who would celebrate being the lone male in a class of females.) Instead, the issue arose from a discomfort based on his "individual preference" as a shy person.

The ruling, written by adjudicator Mary Truemner, states:

The applicant stated that he did not want to interact with the other students because they are women, and thought that they would not be willing to interact with him because of his gender. This is merely speculation, as he never gave the class, or the women, a chance.

This student's refusal to participate in a class of women can't help but remind us of another recent case in which a student begged out of course activities due to his female classmates.

In that case, a York University professor refused to allow a student in his online sociology course to skip an in-person project because his "firm religious beliefs" opposed public contact with his female classmates.

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It is amazing how much more adorable the sentiment seems when you strip religion from the debate. One student too shy to talk to girls, another whose family religion stands in the way.

Yet when you line them up side-by-side, the "shyness" defence is worse.

In the York case, the student was hindered by a religious belief he considered a paramount piece of his identity. And he sought out an online course in an attempt to keep that from interfering with other students. When he was ordered to participate in projects by his professor, he complied, and even thanked the teacher for the manner with which the request was handled.

Now consider this recent University of Toronto case. The student was hindered by an aversion to interacting with women, a trait he all but concedes is a personal failing. Yet he enrolled in a women's studies course, somehow presuming it wouldn't be an issue. And when the professor refused to allow him to skip class and avoid participating with other students he bucked the order, failed the class and launched a human rights complaint.

At the time the York University debate was making headlines, I asked whether the student believed he could maintain his stance once he graduated and entered the workforce. That question goes double for Kim.

Kim is young, only 20 years old according to the Toronto Star, so he has time to grow, mature and break out of the cage shyness has confined him to. At some point, hopefully soon, he'll muster the courage to have a private conversation with a woman, and he'll realize that it's not all bad.

A Women and Gender Studies course with 40 women may have seemed imposing at the time. But there's no better way to learn how to swim than jumping into the deep end.

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