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From pride to progress: Supporting gender and sexual diversity at work

Creating inclusive and welcoming spaces for gender and sexually diverse team members all year long

Published on

July 12, 2023


While advocates have been fighting for gender and sexual diversity rights for many decades, it’s only recently that significant strides have been achieved in Canada.

In 1996—less than 30 years ago—the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to specifically include sexual orientation as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. And in 2005 (less than 25 years ago), Canada became the fourth country worldwide to legalize same-sex marriage.

When it comes to the workplace, some progress has been made, but employers still have a way to go to create truly inclusive, welcoming spaces that support gender and sexual diversity. In fact, according to 2021 research from Statistics Canada, 37% of respondents felt that sharing their sexual orientation during the hiring process would reduce their chances of being hired at a non-2SLGBTQI+ establishment.

How can employers create inclusive, welcoming spaces for gender and sexually diverse team members all year long? For insights, we invited Mike DesLauriers, Employee Experience and DEI Programs Manager at Assent, to share his thoughts at our webinar DEI – An Introduction: Practical steps, key takeaways and lessons learned.

Start with language

When it comes to gender and sexual diversity, words matter. And while our language has changed for the better in a lot of ways (for example, when was the last time you heard someone say, “That’s so gay” in casual conversation?) There is still work to be done.

Conversations about gender and sexual diversity are ultimately about a person’s identity and should be treated with consideration and care. The first step is learning the basics:

  • Gender identity: How a person feels about their gender separate from their sex assigned at birth. Everyone has a gender identity. For some, it may align with their assigned sex at birth and for others, it will differ.
  • Transgender: A person whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth. For example, a person who was assigned female may identify as male, a combination of male and female, or as non-binary—meaning they identify as neither male nor female.
  • Gender expression: The characteristics and behaviours—like dress, appearance, hair, mannerisms and speech—deemed masculine, feminine or somewhere between the two. We often unconsciously try to determine gender identity based on perceived gender expression. For example, we may see a person in a dress and assume they identify as female.
  • Sexual orientation: The range of human sexuality from lesbian and gay, to bisexual, heterosexual and more. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s romantic preferences whereas gender identity is about who you are as a person. For example, a person whose sex assigned at birth was male may identify as a transgender woman whose sexual orientation is heterosexual (straight) as they are attracted to men.
  • 2SLGBTQI+: An acronym to refer to people that are two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or who use other terms related to gender or sexual diversity.

What makes a safe space?

As more companies develop DEI strategies, the term “safe space” is being used more frequently, but what does it really mean, and are we truly creating these spaces?

A safe space is a place where all people see themselves represented and feel that they are accepted for who they are whether they’re gay, straight, transgender, Black, Asian, Indigenous etc.  

To create a safe space, Mike reminds leaders and all team members to move beyond words and toward action. Look for ways to foster a culture that encourages mutual respect, active listening, clear communication, empathy, compassion and empowerment.

Takeaway exercise:

Send the following question to your team in an anonymous survey and use the responses to guide you in building a safe space that reflects the unique needs of your team: What are key elements that are needed for a space to be considered safe, where individuals from diverse backgrounds can share their thoughts and feelings, challenge assumptions, and engage in constructive dialogue?

Six actions you can take to support gender and sexual diversity at work

  1. Develop a gender-neutral recruitment process. Take stock of your job ads, hiring page and interview stages. Would diverse candidates feel welcome at every step? Are there any barriers?
    Tip: To create gender-neutral job ads, use a gender decoder (free!) on your final draft. It will help detect subtle biases that you can edit and reflect on.
  2. Make diversity, equity and inclusion part of your onboarding experience. Go beyond role- and company-specific training and include details of your DEI commitments to set the tone for new employees.
    Tip: You don’t have to start from scratch for each employee. Provide access to existing DEI recordings and anti-harassment training.
  3. Update your forms with inclusive options. Each time a new or existing team member fills out a form—whether it’s part of onboarding, payroll or a release form—certain fields could bring up questions about their identity and what they’re comfortable sharing.
    Tip: Remove salutations (e.g., Mr., Mrs., or Miss), add a non-binary option along with female and male, and provide a dedicated space for a preferred name (for those who are transitioning their legal name may not reflect their preferred name).
  4. Provide ongoing leader & team development. Fostering an inclusive culture is everyone’s responsibility but it requires continuous learning and unlearning.
    Tip: Support your team and leadership with regular training on key topics like unconscious bias, emotional intelligence and inclusive language.
  5. Normalize the use of pronouns in your workplace to signal that people are welcome to show up as themselves. Pronouns can be included when you introduce yourself at the start of a meeting or presentation, in your email signature, on your instant messaging platform and video conferencing profile. It’s a simple action that helps set a norm where others are encouraged to do the same - you are simply providing safety.
    Tip: Develop a simple guide for new hires and current team members with instructions they can follow to add their pronouns and preferred name to their profiles.
    Tip: Don’t make assumptions when using pronouns or asking questions. For example, rather than asking, “What does your wife do for work?” use “partner/spouse” instead to avoid discomfort.
  6. Increase volunteering and engagement by supporting diverse charities, associations and advocacy groups and connect these opportunities back to your organizational goals.
    Tip: If you’re able to offer company donation matching, create a roster of organizations to support based on feedback from your team.

Avoid performative “rainbow washing”

During Pride month (June in Canada), gender and sexual diversity is a hot topic on social media and in the workplace, but once the calendar flips to July, it often moves to the back burner, giving rise to the term “rainbow washing”—that is, using rainbow colours on public, branded messaging during Pride month without supporting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in a meaningful, long-term way.

Mike’s advice for employers is to post with a purpose. Before you share, reflect on what actions you’ll be taking long-term. For example, will you be discussing gender equality with your leaders and teams? You don’t have to be perfect, but you should be authentic. “Pride, along with Black and Indigenous-focused initiatives, should be recognized all year long and connected to your current business,” Mike says.

Back up your words with actions and don’t pause when Pride Month ends. Your current team members and prospective candidates will appreciate and recognize the representation.

Learning from our mistakes: Calling out vs calling in

In a survey, Statistics Canada found that the most common forms of workplace harassment experienced by respondents due to their sexual orientation were microaggressions (92%). While the harm caused by microaggressions may not always be intentional, these moments provide an opportunity to learn about and challenge harmful behaviour.

How you respond to a microaggression will likely depend on the type of comment made and the intention behind it. Here’s how you can decide whether you need to call someone in (have a private conversation) or call them out (challenge their behaviour openly):

  • Calling out is appropriate when you need to let someone know their behaviour is unacceptable, or when it must be interrupted to avoid causing more harm.
  • Calling in is useful when you want to engage someone in a deeper discussion and encourage understanding and reflection.
    Tip: Start by sharing how the comment or interaction personally impacted you and express any feelings that came up because of it. “I felt this way when I heard this…”

As a general guideline, to foster a more inclusive workplace, Mike shared a memorable statement from a colleague: treat someone how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated.

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