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Gender identity and gender expression: what does an inclusive workplace look like?

Two office workers looking at smartphone outdoors after work with a reflective building in the background.

Ontario employers have a duty to protect employees from discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. Both are listed as protected grounds in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Vexatious comments or conduct based on gender identity and gender expression are also specifically named in the Occupational Health and Safety Act’s definition of sexual harassment. But does anyone really understand what that means?

What are gender identity and gender expression?

The first step to creating an inclusive work environment that is free of discrimination and harassment is to help everyone understand exactly what we’re talking about. “Gender identity and gender expression are separate and distinct,” says Tova Larsen, Health and Safety Consultant with WSPS. “Gender identity is our internal sense of self and who we know ourselves to be. Gender expression is how we present that gender to others.” Tova explains that there are several ways that we express our gender to others, such as how we dress, how we speak, and how we behave. “Gender expression can involve our clothing, our hair, our makeup, but also our body language, our voice, and our mannerisms. It can be the name we choose to use. It can even be the way we express interest in certain things,” says Tova.

Fostering an inclusive and welcoming workplace

Workplaces are becoming more diverse. It is this diversity of perspectives, lived experiences, and ideas that lead to increased innovation and creativity, both of which are key to business success. It’s important that employees fully understand what gender expression means so that they recognize when it's being used to hurt, anger, or exclude someone. More than simply responding if unkind comments arise, organizations can – and should – do more to proactively create inclusive workplaces. Tova offers these tips to help employers create a psychologically safe workplace where gender expression is not only respected but also embraced.

  1. Establish clear expectations to establish organizational culture including through harassment policies and programs and a Code of Conduct. These help ensure everyone knows what harassment is, what behaviours and comments are unacceptable, how to report harassment incidents, and how the employer will respond if harassment occurs.

  2. Provide training to all staff on gender inclusivity and respect in the workplace, so that everyone is informed about gender minorities. “This helps set everyone up for success in demonstrating respectful behaviours,” says Tova.

  3.  Avoid making assumptions about gender. You can’t tell how someone identifies, or which pronouns they prefer, through appearance (or name in electronic communications). And know that gender diverse people can look feminine, masculine, genderless, or present with mixed gender characteristics.

  4. Ask everyone to indicate their preferred pronouns and make it a regular practice to include them in signature lines, contact lists, etc. The important point here is that everyone does it. Don’t single out specific individuals.

  5.  Call people by their chosen name and pronouns. “It’s one of the most critical ways to be respectful,” Tova says. Refusing to do so could also be considered harassment. If someone’s legal name differs from their chosen name, keep this information confidential and use it only when it’s essential, such as tax paperwork.

  6.  Review your internal forms, programs, and policies to update the language. Replacing “he or she” with “they” on internal documents fosters inclusivity. Ensuring Dress Codes are as gender neutral and flexible as possible, and encouraging individual expression is an easy place to start.

  7. Make gendered spaces more accessible. Make it clear gender diverse staff are welcome to use the bathrooms and changerooms they feel safest in. In addition and where possible, consider creating additional gender-neutral spaces, such as single room washrooms, so that staff aren’t stuck choosing male or female.

  8.  Provide choice in uniformed clothing. For branded clothing and uniforms, consider offering variety including unisex options, avoid highly gender stereotypical pieces (e.g. frills, ruffles, bows), and allow all staff – regardless of gender – to order the pieces they feel most comfortable and confident wearing.

How WSPS can help

Mental Health & Employee Wellbeing  Resources

  • Mental Health Prevention Roadmap. Tools to help you develop a psychologically safe workplace.  

  •, a website created by Ontario's health and safety system partners that provides access to reputable and tested mental health tools, models and frameworks. 

Articles, videos and guides 


The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.