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Free to be me: gender identity and gender expression in the workplace

Gender identity and gender expression have come to the forefront of news headlines in recent years. Caitlyn Jenner’s transition from male to female brought a lot of attention to the topic, and has made significant inroads in generating discussion. More recently, singer Sam Smith identified as non-binary. We are also seeing the issue raised in schools, government and the military.

It’s clear we are living in a time of social change around gender identity and gender expression. As members of society, employees and employers, there is much we are obligated to do and can do to support and respect employees’ gender identity and gender expression.

Gender identity and gender expression were introduced as prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code in 2012 and under the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2017.

Sex is different than gender. Sex is anatomical, typically based on chromosomes, hormones and external anatomy, and is usually assigned at birth as male, female or intersex. Gender identity is a person’s internal identification of gender regardless of their sex. Gender expression is how someone expresses their gender identity: for example, how they dress, do their hair and makeup, their mannerisms, preferred name and pronouns, intonation and voice.

A person’s gender identity can fall anywhere on the gender spectrum. Transgender is an umbrella term referring to people with diverse gender identities and expressions that differ from stereotypical gender norms.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, individuals who are transgender, or gender non-conforming, are among the most disadvantaged groups in society. Trans people routinely experience transphobia: discrimination, harassment and even violence because their gender identity or gender expression is different from their birth-assigned sex. A 2013 survey by the Trans PULSE project found that 98% of transgender individuals had experienced some form of transphobia.

Gender-based discrimination and harassment come in many forms such as:

  • refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name or pronouns
  • using forms that are not gender inclusive
  • comments that a person is not conforming with gender-role stereotypes
  • jokes
  • spreading rumours
  • “outing” or threatening to “out” someone
  • comments that demean or ridicule based on gender identity or expression
  • behaviour that polices traditional gender norms

Employers have a duty under the Code to accommodate gender identity and gender expression. This includes taking steps to create an inclusive workplace, and fulfilling accommodation requests to the point of undue hardship. Creating an inclusive workplace can involve some or all of the following:

  • meaningful discussions with, and support for, employees regarding gender identity and gender expression
  • providing gender neutral washrooms/changerooms and options for privacy
  • creating gender-inclusive HR forms and policies
  • using gender neutral language
  • offering gender neutral dress codes and uniform choices
  • respecting preferred pronouns (e.g., he/she, they/them/their, ze/sie/zie/hir)
  • determining and respecting the level of information the employee wants to share with others in the workplace
  • providing education and training for employees and management
  • addressing unconscious bias and promptly addressing discrimination
  • a genuine commitment to meeting the duty to accommodate gender identity and gender expression issues

Helping create an inclusive environment will not only prevent harassment and discrimination but can also boost morale and productivity. As an employer you can help create an environment where all employees feel valued, respected and accepted.