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Achieving an Inclusive Workplace for Gender Identity and Expression

February 2, 2023

When filling out personal information about myself for employers, the options for gender are often: male, female, or “other”. But what does “other” entail, and who fits into that category?

Sex and Gender

Sex is about a person’s biological makeup based on sex chromosomes, primary and secondary characteristics, or hormonal levels. At birth someone is assigned as male, female, or intersex.

We sometimes conflate sex with gender, but gender is different. It is a socially constructed set of norms based on certain attributes that fit into binary categories of man or women. Some people identify within this binary, but many do not. For example, some people may identify as the opposite of their birth-assigned sex, a mixture of the two, or have their own self-concepts of gender beyond any attachments to male or female.

Gender expression is how a person expresses their gender, through their appearance, clothing choices, and actions. Everyone expresses their gender differently and how they express their gender may change from day to day. Gender expression and what is seen as acceptable in a given society can change over time. For example, in the 17th century, clothing was distinguished more by class than gender.

Creating an Inclusive Workplace

The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination based on various identities including sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. Below are a few suggestions on how workplaces can move from discrimination to inclusion in relation to these identities.

Normalizing pronouns: Requesting that employees provide their pronouns if they are comfortable doing so. Recognizing that gender identity can be fluid, one option is to ask that people indicate the pronouns they prefer to use that day. This could be on names in video meetings, emails or in discussions. Having that as a practice means that the default is not “he/him” or “she/her” forcing those who prefer other pronouns to be singled out. You can also use gender neutral terms such as they/them until you know what someone’s preferred pronouns are.

Inclusive language: Using gender inclusive language when speaking and writing can help promote inclusivity. This can include saying things such as “folks”, “everyone”, “colleagues”, “participants”, and so on rather than terms like “ladies and gentlemen”. Similarly, “their” is more inclusive than “his/her”.

Dress codes: Employees are typically required to dress professionally, but workplace dress codes are often contain descriptions of suitable clothing based on gender. To make dress codes more inclusive, use one dress code for all employees with a list of options such as dress shirts, pantsuits, skirt suits and so on. This offers a neutral dress code for employees to choose from as best fits their gender expression.

Bathrooms: Most bathrooms are assigned for men or women, but that can be exclusionary for those who fit outside the gender binary. Some workplaces have instead created a third bathroom called non-binary for those who fit into neither gender binary, but this implies that non-binary is a third gender. Instead, perhaps, have a bathroom labeled as “all gender”, or “gender neutral”, being careful not to require anyone to use that bathroom.

Offering neutral options inclusive of all gender identities and gender expressions not only helps an organization meets its legal duties but, more importantly, it creates a psychologically safe and inclusive working environment for all employees.