Understanding Gender Identity in the Workplace

Gender identity understanding and awareness is a crucial part of creating an inclusive work environment for employees. Learn more about how you can help.

More than 1.6 million people over the age of 13 identify as transgender in the U.S., recent Studies have revealed. Many of these people have experienced gender dysphoria throughout their lifetimes and choose to hide their identity in fear of discrimination, especially at work. Gender dysphoria is the distress that comes from the misalignment of your biological sex to your preferred gender identity. This can be extremely difficult to navigate, especially in a society that does not fully understand, and can result in feelings of isolation, anxiety, and serious mental health decline.

In recent years, major milestones have been made in transgender and gender identity rights. However, many wins within the community are met with painful setbacks and there is still a lot more work to be done, particularly in the workplace where there is often a lack of understanding and support for gender-diverse employees.

Gender identity understanding and awareness are a crucial part of creating an inclusive work environment. As an employer, you hold an important responsibility to manage the issues surrounding gender identity in your workplace and ensure the appropriate support is provided to those who need it. We’ll take a closer look at the current challenges surrounding gender identity at work and provide you with actionable advice on what you can do to support your employees.

What’s in this article?

What’s the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Often used incorrectly, gender identity and gender expression are two completely different terms. Let’s break this down…

What is gender identity?

Gender identity refers to an individual’s internal sense of their own gender, which may or may not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. While biological sex is determined by an individual’s physical anatomy, gender identity is the gender an individual identifies as, regardless of their physical appearance. Unlike biological sex, gender is regarded as a spectrum and an individual could identify as male, female, between both, or neither.

What is gender expression?

Gender expression refers to an individual's choice of outward expression in the way they dress, behave, and speak. It is influenced by societal norms, cultural expectations, and personal preferences, and will vary from person to person. For example, an individual who identifies as a man may choose to dress in stereotypically ‘female’ clothes. Someone’s gender identity and gender expression will not always be linked.

It’s important to note that both gender identity and gender expression have nothing to do with sexual orientation, such as being homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. For example, a bisexual employee can also identify as a woman, yet dress in stereotypically ‘masculine’ clothing.

Types of gender identity

Although gender identity is on a spectrum and there are infinite genders, here are the most common* gender identities you may encounter:

  • Transgender - someone whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Cisgender - someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
  • Nonbinary - someone who does not identify their gender with the male-female binary, also known as genderqueer. This can be an individual who identifies as having no gender or multiple genders. Someone who does not identify as any gender is also known as agender.
  • Gender fluid - someone whose gender identity changes continuously, one day they may identify as male and the other they may have no gender.

*This list is not representative of all gender identities, so be sure to bear this in mind.

Gender identity laws in the United States and Canada

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that ‘transgender status’ is protected under federal law, regarded as the same as ‘sex’ under Title VII. This means that firing an individual based on their transgender status or sexual orientation would be in violation and punishable by this law.

The law also forbids discrimination when hiring, delegating job responsibilities, giving promotions, providing access to training and benefits, and any other condition of employment. In addition, it is unlawful to harass employees or create a hostile work environment because of an individual’s gender identity, such as using offensive or derogatory language. Likewise, it is illegal to purposefully and repeatedly use the wrong name or pronouns to address an individual.

Unfortunately, the law does not currently protect against isolated incidents or ‘teasing’, or accidental misuse of preferred names and pronouns.

In Canada, there are multiple laws to protect an individual based on their gender identity. The Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, ensuring equal opportunity in employment and is federally regulated in certain industries, such as banking and transportation. 

Moreover, Bill C-16 is a federal law that amends the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include protection against discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. It ensures that transgender individuals are explicitly protected from discrimination in employment and other areas of federal jurisdiction.

Gender identity in the workplace

Key challenges faced by gender-diverse individuals at work

Described by GenderGP as ‘an epidemic of discrimination within America’s workplaces’, gender-diverse and transgender individuals currently face a number of barriers to equal employment. They fall subject to discrimination and bias in the workplace, both in overt and subtle ways. In fact, nearly half (45.5%) of LGBTQ+ workers report experiences of discrimination and harassment at work, which includes unfair dismissal due to their gender identity. McKinsey reports that transgender and gender-diverse workers make less money than cisgender people on average - a staggering 32% more to be exact!

The unique struggles experienced by gender-diverse individuals can negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing. More than 50% of transgender employees say that they feel uncomfortable sharing their gender identity at work, and more than 75% keep their gender identity hidden in external professional settings. And despite most transgender people feeling less supported than cisgender colleagues, they are the employees who can often require the most support from employers.

Benefits of a gender-inclusive workplace

Fostering a gender-inclusive workplace has numerous benefits, for employees, businesses, and the economy as a whole. The benefits of promoting gender-inclusivity at work include:

  • Increased employee health and wellbeing - working in an accepting environment enables individuals to be their authentic selves without fear of judgment or discrimination, which can promote personal growth, self-confidence, and a sense of fulfillment.
  • Enhanced collaboration and innovation - like any form of diversity, gender diversity brings a broad range of perspectives and more ideas to the table, allowing for improved problem-solving, teamwork, and overall performance.
  • Improved employee morale and productivity -  when employees feel valued and respected for who they are, their morale and productivity increases.
  • Attracting and retaining diverse talent - an inclusive workplace is an attractive destination for diverse talent and companies that prioritize gender inclusivity gain access to a wider talent pool and are more likely to attract the most skilled workers.
  • Build a positive brand image and reputation - companies that show their commitment to gender inclusion and diversity tend to have a positive reputation, which can help you attract more talent and customers. Just be sure to steer clear of ‘rainbow washing’ and make sure everything you do has honest intention!
  • Boost annual consumer spending - wage equity for transgender people has the potential to boost annual consumer spending by as much as $12 million a year, making a positive contribution to the global economy.

Gender identity guidance for businesses

Here are our six top tips for businesses looking to create a gender-inclusive workplace but don’t know where to start.

6 Tips to creating a gender-inclusive workplace

  1. Establish inclusive policies and practices
  2. Provide gender diversity training to all staff
  3. Use gender-inclusive language
  4. Foster an inclusive culture company-wide
  5. Review and revise recruitment and promotion processes
  6. Implement support systems and resources

1. Establish inclusive policies and practices

It is imperative that you review and update any company policies to ensure they are inclusive of diverse gender identities. Make sure to cover all bases. It can be beneficial to request feedback from your employees to ensure they have the policies they need, that you may not think of.

This could be anything like building gender-neutral restrooms, modifying your dress code that allows for self-expression, or adjusting parental leave policies. You should aim to review your policies on a regular basis to ensure they are up-to-date.

2. Provide gender diversity training to all staff

Allies play a crucial role in supporting gender-diverse colleagues and creating a safe space for open dialogue, where employees can be their true selves. Education is vital to creating allies within your teams.

Employers should look into providing diversity training to all staff members that covers gender identity inclusivity education. With appropriate training, you can help eliminate unconscious biases within the workplace, raise awareness for the issues gender-diverse employees face, and promote a more understanding and inclusive workforce. It provides a learning opportunity for those interested to know more about gender diversity and expand their horizons so that they can be more understanding and support their peers.

3. Use gender-inclusive language

Gender-inclusive language should be used across all workplace communications, policies, and forms. You should avoid assumptions about gender and use gender-neutral pronouns until an employee makes their preferred pronouns known to you.

That being said, it is important that you always respect an employee’s preferred names and pronouns, regardless of what it says on their official documents (unless for legal reasons).

4. Foster an inclusive culture company-wide

As a business, it should be your top priority to promote a culture where all kinds of diversity are celebrated and valued. A culture of respect, empathy, and zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment are a must-have, but you should aim to go beyond the necessities. Make it your mission to encourage employees to share their experiences and support one another through training, resource groups, or mentorships for example.

5. Review and revise recruitment and promotion processes

Inclusive hiring practices should already be part of your current recruitment model, however, you should ensure that this encompasses gender diversity too. You may not realize it but your recruitment and promotion processes may represent biases that reinforce barriers to employment for transgender and gender-diverse candidates.

Your first step should be to review job descriptions and role requirements and remove any gendered language or criteria that may narrow your talent acquisition pool. Consider implementing blind screening of resumes and standardizing interview questions where possible. This will help to avoid unconscious biases during candidate evaluation.

When it comes to your promotion processes, defining universal criteria and implementing objective performance evaluations are key to avoiding biases. Be sure to provide equity in opportunities, providing training to those who need it and base all promotions on employee competency.

6. Implement support systems and resources

As mentioned above, transgender and gender-diverse employees are often the individuals most in need of support systems and resources. Employee assistance programs (EAPs), counseling services, and mental health resources can all be beneficial for those navigating the challenges that come with being gender-diverse in the workplace.

Setting up employee resource groups (ERGs) is also a great way to create a sense of community and give everyone a chance to connect with like-minded individuals, share experiences, and support one another.

At FDM, we are committed to fostering an inclusive workplace for our employees, where everyone feels comfortable coming to work as their authentic selves. Approximately 7% of our employees belong to the LGBTQ+ community and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support them personally and professionally. That’s why we set up our Pride Network, an open and inclusive environment for members to feel heard and educate others.

If you want to learn more about what we’re doing at FDM to support diversity and inclusion, check out our DEI initiatives.

About Preeta Ghoshal

Preeta is a content writer with over 10 years’ experience across print, digital and broadcast media. She has worked extensively in multi-media content creation. Her work reflects a mix of subject matter research and storytelling to produce content that is both informative and easily digestible. She is presently providing content support to each of the FDM programmes and the wider marketing team.

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