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Free to be me: tips for a gender inclusive workplace

January 26, 2021

As I was filling out a form recently, I came across the common ‘tick the box’ question. It gave me only two choices: male or female. I paused and thought, what if I didn’t feel I was either?

As I walk through workplaces and public spaces, I see the traditional male or female signs. And as employees, we’re often asked to tick one box or the other on forms. In a world where being the same often garners acceptance, how can we make our organizations a place where we ensure we’re being inclusive and accepting of those who don’t fit traditional gender norms or stereotypes?

In one of those walks, I literally got a sign. The sign on the door to the bathroom said: “Everyone”. Brilliant.

Before I talk about some other ideas to achieve inclusivity, let’s talk about sex and gender: what’s the difference?

Simply put, sex relates to things like our anatomy and chromosomes.

Gender in the context in which we’re discussing it here, is about a person’s choice of gender identity and expression. Gender identity is a person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It involves their choice to identify anywhere along the gender spectrum: male, female, non-binary, gender-fluid and more. It can be different than a person’s sex. Gender expression is how a person expresses their gender identity: things like mannerisms, intonation and tone of voice, the clothes they wear, physical appearance and their chosen name and pronoun.

Both gender identity and gender expression are protected grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. Harassing or discriminating against someone who does not conform to gender norms violates the law as does failing to accommodate a person’s gender identity and gender expression.

Below are some ways we can make our organizations gender inclusive to respect and support people living true to their gender identity:

  • Promote inclusivity – Make inclusivity a visible part of your organization. Posters and publications promoting inclusivity and diversity, gender neutral washrooms and changerooms and policies that speak to a commitment and steps to achieving an inclusive environment are some ways of making it known it’s an inclusive environment.
  • Take action against discriminatory attitudes – Imposing meaningful consequences for discriminatory attitudes or intolerance is essential to demonstrating a genuine commitment to an organization free of harassment and discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. Whether it’s subtle or blatant, bad behaviour that is condoned or ‘slaps on the wrist’ for serious misdoings makes it impossible for inclusiveness to exist.  
  • Don’t let discriminatory views dictate – Whether they are coming from within or outside your organization, discriminatory attitudes by co-workers, clients or members of the public can’t be allowed to dictate how the organization treats a person. For example, it’s discriminatory to agree to allow a customer who has an issue with an employee’s cross-dressing to not have to interact with the employee.
  • Address unconscious bias – It’s impossible to be a human being and not have biases: everyone has unconscious biases about certain groups of people. Educating employees about unconscious bias helps to keep it in check and ensure our biases aren’t translating into treating others in a negative way, even inadvertently.
  • Educate – Education and awareness can go a long way to fighting intolerance which sometimes comes from a lack of understanding or a fear of something unknown. Educate employees and management about gender identity and gender expression. Being proactive can prevent many issues. Education can also provide the tools and guidance employees need to navigate situations that arise.
  • Challenge gender stereotypes – Break down views of traditional gender norms such as expecting men to be tough and macho and women to be passive and nurturing. Don’t tolerate jokes or comments that someone does not conform with gender stereotypes, such as those about what a man or woman should look like, how they should act, what they should like or dislike or how they should dress.
  • Respect a person’s chosen name and pronoun – Refusing to refer to someone by their chosen name and personal pronoun is discriminatory. You can ensure inclusivity in communications by avoiding Mr. and Ms. when sending letters and emails. Use the person’s first and last name instead or the gender neutral pronoun “Mx”.
  • Use gender neutral forms – If there is no legitimate need to request information about a person’s gender: don’t. If there is a legitimate need, offer additional options like “not applicable” or that they prefer not to indicate their gender.
  • Have gender neutral washrooms and changerooms – Gender neutral spaces best avoid defining people by traditional gender norms. Have all gender neutral spaces or have male and female designated washrooms and changerooms as well as those designated as gender neutral or “for everyone”. An employee whose gender identity is different than their sex cannot be required to use a particular washroom or changeroom and has the right under human rights legislation to use the room of their choice. 
  • Have gender neutral dress codes and uniforms – Rather than having different dress code or uniform choices for men versus women, offer one set of choices that all employees can choose from regardless of their sex or gender. 
  • Review and revise workplace policies – Review policies and make any necessary revisions to ensure they incorporate inclusive language, practices and workplace design.
  • Offer a guideline for an employee in transition – Include clear direction for managers on how to help an employee in transition; designate a lead contact to assist; set out expectations of management, staff and transitioning employees; and reference related policies, practices and resources.
  • Support employees in transition – Employees in transition who are living as members of their desired sex should be considered to be members of that sex for the purposes of human rights legislation. Support employees in transition by developing an accommodation plan that includes things like how and when to discuss the transition with others, preferred pronouns, washroom preferences, potential medical leave or time off, available benefits and how they would like to be supported if someone misgenders them. In a unionized environment, the union should also play a supportive role.
  • Let people live true to who they are – Most importantly, recognize and respect a person’s lived gender identity.