Preventing Gender Discrimination: A Guide for Employers

  • Discrimination
Preventing Gender Discrimination: A Guide for Employers
Francis Ibana

Francis Ibana, Employment Law Content Specialist

(Last updated )

Gender discrimination is the unequal treatment of individuals based on their gender, which can take many forms, such as unequal pay, harassment, and exclusion from opportunities.

Despite efforts to address gender discrimination, unfortunately, it remains a persistent problem in Canada’s workplaces. Women, trans, and non-binary individuals continue to face systemic barriers that limit their career growth and prevent them from achieving their full potential.

As an employer, it is important to understand and recognize the harm caused by gender discrimination in the workplace. Not only is gender discrimination a violation of human rights, but it can also have serious consequences for both the affected employees and the organization as a whole.

Discrimination can lead to low employee morale, high turnover rates, a damaged reputation for your company, and costly lawsuits and legal fees. Employers who do not take steps to prevent and address discrimination may face negative publicity, loss of business, and difficulty attracting and retaining top talent.

It is crucial that you take gender discrimination seriously and create a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusion to avoid these potential risks. In this guide, we’ll explain what gender discrimination is, various forms of gender discrimination, and how to prevent it in the workplace.

How is “gender” defined?

It is important to understand the definition of gender. Often, the terms “gender” and “sex” are used interchangeably; this is incorrect. Sex refers to the genetic differences between a male or a female and is generally assigned at birth based on biological characteristics.

Gender, on the other hand, refers to how an individual identifies themselves through socially constructed norms. Gender is based on social roles, attitudes, and beliefs.

It is typically viewed as a spectrum which allows individuals to identify as male, female, neither, both or a gender in between. Unfortunately, throughout time, these socially constructed norms have manifested inequality amongst different genders. This has led to gender discrimination in various social areas, including employment.

What constitutes gender discrimination?

Although there is no legislation that defines gender discrimination, it refers to treating someone unequally because of their gender. Gender discrimination may also refer to treating someone unequally because of their sex.

It is against the law to discriminate against someone based on their gender, gender identity or gender expression. While gender identity refers to each person’s internal and individual experience of gender and their sense of being a man, woman, both or neither, gender expression is how a person publicly presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance such as how they dress, wear their hair, do their make-up, and use their body language and voice.

Gender is a protected ground under human rights legislation in Canada. Each province has established their own human rights legislation regarding discrimination against gender, and other various protected grounds. For example, provincially regulated employees in Ontario are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code.  The Canadian Human Rights Act protects federally regulated employees from discrimination based on a protected ground.

What are the different types of gender discrimination?

There are many types of gender discrimination in the workplace. It’s important you fully understand these types, so you create an inclusive work environment.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when there is intentional, unfair treatment because of someone’s gender. For example, an employer choosing a male applicant over a female applicant out of fear that the female will soon become pregnant and go on leave.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when someone is discriminated against but in a more subtle and discrete way. For example, an employer not having a dedicated, safe, and clean place for female employees to breastfeed, causing an employee to use a restroom or another unsanitary location.

An employer treating everyone the same may indirectly discriminate against female employees who are new mothers and require an allocated space to breastfeed.

Harassment

In some circumstances, employees may feel harassed because of their gender, gender identity, or gender expression. Harassment because of an employee’s gender is a violation of human rights legislation. Making comments or jokes regarding a perception that a specific gender is not conforming with gender-specific roles would be an example of harassment.

Poisoned work environment

If harassment because of gender—whether by identity or expression—is left unchecked, this may create a “poisoned work environment”, which can have a serious impact on the mental health, well-being, and productivity of employees.

A poisoned work environment can be brought on in various ways, such as an employee experiencing unwelcome comments or gestures from colleagues because of their gender identity or expression, or being routinely passed over for promotions or important projects in favour of colleagues of a different gender.

An example of this is a form that employees have to fill out that only provides the options of “male” or “female”. While this may seem like a small issue, it can be alienating and exclusionary for employees who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming. It can send a message that the workplace does not value or acknowledge their identity, and can contribute to feelings of exclusion.

What are some examples of gender discrimination in the workplace?

Gender discrimination in the workplace may take various forms including making stereotypical comments or gestures. This behaviour may also be the result of certain workplace rules, policies, and practices.

Some gender discrimination examples include:

  • Making derogatory or disrespectful comments about an employee’s gender identity or expression, or using incorrect pronouns or names.
  • Refusing to provide workplace accommodations, such as access to gender-neutral restrooms, dress codes that allow for gender expression, or time off for medical appointments related to gender transition.
  • Retaliating against an employee who reports discrimination or harassment based on their gender identity or expression.
  • Denying healthcare benefits, including gender-affirming healthcare, to employees based on their gender identity or expression.

Another common form of gender discrimination in the workplace is pay inequality. Historically, women have been paid less than their male counterparts, despite being in the same or very similar positions with the same responsibilities.

Various provincial governments, as well as the federal government, have formed legislation to ensure employers pay women and men equally for work of equal value. These legislations are meant to address the issue of unequitable pay in the workplace. Ontario and Manitoba have formed their own pay equity legislation, as well as the federal government with the Employment Equity Act. British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan have not formed such pay equity legislation. However, human rights legislation addresses equal pay in these provinces, as well as discrimination.

How can employers prevent gender discrimination?

It is essential for employers to take proactive steps to eliminate gender discrimination in their workplaces. Here are some strategies that can help:

Review and revise your policies

Employers should review their policies and procedures to ensure that they do not discriminate against any employees based on gender or other protected characteristics. Policies should be drafted with gender-inclusive language, and employers should make sure that they are implemented fairly and consistently.

An employer should put in place anti-discriminatory and anti-harassment policies that highlight in detail the employer’s commitment to a healthy, equal, and inclusive environment, which includes:

  • A list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in accordance with human rights legislation.
  • Definition of key terms such as “gender identity” and “harassment.”
  • Description/examples of unacceptable behaviour.
  • Processes of how internal complaints will be handled.
  • Disciplinary measures that will be applied if a complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.
  • Remedies that will be available if the complaint of harassment or discrimination is proven.

You should promote such policies to all employees about human rights matters including:

  • Providing clear training to new employees.
  • Posting information on bulletin boards around the workplace.
  • Making remote workers aware of any new policies.
  • Continuing employee education to promote an inclusive work environment.

Have a plan to handle complaints

If an employee makes a complaint about gender discrimination, it is your duty to ensure that you have a plan to handle complaints. This should include investigation and disciplinary measures. You must also inform the parties involved in the investigation and ensure that the investigation is kept confidential. By handling any complaints you receive swiftly, the confidence your employees have in you will increase.

Provide training and education

Employers should provide training and education to all employees about gender discrimination and the importance of creating an inclusive workplace. This can include training on unconscious bias, harassment prevention, and inclusive language.

Establish diversity and inclusion initiatives

Employers should establish diversity and inclusion initiatives to create an environment that supports all employees. This can include creating a diversity committee, offering mentorship programs, and implementing flexible work arrangements.

Conduct regular audits

Employers should conduct regular audits to identify any gender disparities in the workplace, such as pay gaps or underrepresentation of women in leadership roles. This information can help employers take corrective action and create more equitable workplaces.

Do you need help drafting an effective policy against gender discrimination?

Eliminating gender discrimination in the workplace is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good for business. Companies with diverse and inclusive workforces are more innovative, more productive, and more competitive in the marketplace.

By reviewing policies, providing training and education, establishing diversity and inclusion initiatives, and conducting regular audits, you can create more equitable and inclusive workplaces that benefit everyone.

If you need assistance with addressing gender discrimination in the workplace or guidance on implementing a workplace violence and harassment policy, Peninsula’s services allow you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have. Contact us at 1 (833) 247-3652 to speak with one of our experts today.

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