Gender Identity and Expression as Protected Grounds: What are the practical considerations for employers?


(Part 1 or 4- Three Steps to Begin. Original post by Drew Dennis (Co-Founder of TransFocus Consulting)

The passing of Bill C-16 in June 2017 marked a historic moment within our nation’s human rights legislation. For the first time, transgender Canadians have become recognized  within the Canadian Human Rights Act with the explicit addition of “gender identity and gender expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.

A 2016 Angus Reid poll confirms the hearts and minds of the nation are aligned with the spirit of this legislation reporting, “more than eight-in-ten Canadians (84%) support expanding non-discrimination laws to include gender identity.” 

As a consultant practicing in the area of transgender inclusion, the clients that reach out to me embody this aspiration to be more inclusive of transgender employees and customers. At the same time, they share with me their worries about saying, or doing, the wrong thing and inadvertently offending the people they wish to support. The question I hear most often among employers: “What do we need to know that we don’t know?”

This blog series in four parts answers this question in general and specific ways.

  • Part 1 introduces concepts related to gender and offers beginning steps toward strengthening gender inclusion within the workplace.

  • Parts 2 and 3 delve into the specifics of inclusive gender data on forms and surveys, including both common pitfalls to avoid as well as solutions moving forward.

  • Finally, Part 4 concludes the series with a look at your Human Resources department and your readiness to support transgender employees.

What do you need to know? As a starting place it is helpful to understand the terminology, such as gender identity and gender expression.

Gender Identity

Every new born baby is assigned a sex at birth based on the medical professional’s understanding or reading of their anatomy. For most people, their gender identity – that is, their innate sense of their gender – will align with their sex assigned at birth. The term used for people who experience this alignment is cisgender (or the shorthand is “cis”). 

However, it is estimated that 1 in 200 people will experience a dissonance between their felt gender and their sex assigned at birth. Transgender (trans) is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of people who experience this dissonance. There are many terms that people may use to self-describe their gender identity, such as trans woman and trans man. 

There are others - people like myself - who experience their gender identity outside of the binary of woman or man. Non-binary is a term that describes this experience. Other terms that people may use include gender non-conforming, agender and gender creative. 

Gender Expression

And finally, gender expression is the many ways in which a person chooses to express or present their gender such as attire, hair style, voice, personality and mannerisms. 

Each of these - sex, gender identity and gender expression - are distinct social dimensions that we all possess. Figure 1 illustrates how each of these occur along a continuum. I invite you to consider how you might situate yourself along these continuums? Are there times in your life when there has been a fluctuation along these spectra?

Figure 1: Continuums of Sex, Gender Identity and Gender Expression


This framework helps us to see how gendered-based assumptions within our organization may lead to unintended exclusion. 

In particular, there are three common assumptions that have been entrenched within in North American societies. First, that a baby’s gender would follow their sex assigned at birth (e.g., a male baby would grow up to be a man). Second, that gender remains static over a person’s lifetime. And third, that there are only two genders (i.e., women and men). Up until now, our organizational spaces, operations and systems have primarily been built upon these assumptions - particularly, that gender is binary - and typically without much thought as to why and whether it serves the company’s purpose, values and goals. 

As we continue to deepen and evolve our understanding of gender, we find ourselves amid a paradigm shift. This provides us an opportunity to pause and reconsider organizations through a lens of gender. 

Drawing on our experiences of working with clients across diverse sectors, TransFocus has identified five key areas where gender tends to be present within organizations and may be creating barriers or points of exclusion, often unintentional, to transgender employees and customers. Figure 2 illustrates examples of such barriers across the five key organizational areas.

Figure 1: Barriers Across Five Key Areas


Surfacing where gender may be creating unintentional barriers within your organization allows you to then begin to mitigate these barriers and shift to more gender inclusive practices.

So when employers reach out inquire about how they should start their journey toward greater transgender inclusion, I advise the following first steps:

1. Equip your leadership.

How would you assess the current knowledge and capacity of your organization’s Senior Leadership when it comes to supporting a transgender employee? Or interacting with transgender customers? Or speaking to the media about a sudden trans-related issue? An essential first step is to equip your Senior Leadership with language and tools. Consider an Education and Awareness session inclusive of respectful terms and concepts either in person or via a live webinar.

2. Conduct a gender scan.

Curious to learn more about your organization’s potential barriers facing transgender employees and customers? Take this rapid appraisal with ten questions that generate a snapshot of the current issues and opportunities within your organization.

3. Create an Action Plan.

Based on the outcomes of a gender scan, prioritize the gaps and opportunities identified and create a measurable action plan. It is helpful to establish an inter-departmental group with team members representing each of the five areas illustrated in Figure 2. This builds out your team’s knowledge and capacity to sustain transgender inclusion efforts.

Over the next two blogs, we use the example of inclusion of transgender and non-binary people in surveys and forms to illustrate specifically the challenges and complexities of a seemingly easy task of expanding gender categories. 

GeneralKai Scott