Gender Discrimination

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Thursday, Sep 22, 2022

Employers should promote gender equality and foster an inclusive workplace, free from discrimination. Despite best practices by employers, many employees continue to experience gender inequality in the workplace. This can be extremely problematic for employers.

As an employer, you have a duty to ensure no forms of discrimination are present in your workplace. If so – claims could be made against you.

In this guide, we’ll explain what gender discrimination is, various forms of gender discrimination, and how to prevent it in the workplace.

What is Gender?

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 is 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.

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. Other provinces include:

  • The Human Rights Code of British Columbia.
  • The Alberta Human Rights Act.
  • The Human Rights Code of Manitoba.
  • The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

The Canadian Human Rights Act protects federally regulated employees from discrimination based on a protected ground. Examples of these workplaces are:

  • Transportation companies, such as trucking companies and railways.
  • Telecommunication and broadcasting companies.
  • Postal and courier services.

What’s 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:

  • Denying a promotion despite having the credentials because of their gender.
  • Engaging in workplace gossip that reinforces gender stereotypes.
  • Spreading rumors about a person’s gender identity or expression in the workplace.
  • Refusing to use an employee’s preferred personal pronouns.
  • Remarks that objectify a trans or gender non-conforming person in a sexual way.

These examples demonstrate how prejudice, stigma, and stereotyping by co-workers and management may hamper a person’s ability to thrive in the workplace.

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.

Types of Gender Identity Discrimination

There are many types of gender discrimination in Canada, and specifically 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.


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.

For example, making comments that women appear less feminine when they wear certain clothing (e.g. pants instead of dresses) may constitute gender discrimination and a violation of human rights legislation. The employer may be liable for the actions of their staff if instances of gender discrimination are not properly addressed.

Poisoned Work Environment

If harassment because of gender – whether by identity or expression – is left unchecked, this may create a “poisoned work environment.”

In addition, policies, practices, and procedures may be non-discriminatory on their face, but may be applied in a discriminatory way. For example, an employee information sheet that requests the gender of the employee, and the only options are “male” or “female.”

As an employer, you have a responsibility to prevent and avoid discrimination in your workplace as much as possible.

How to Solve Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

Under human rights legislation, you have the responsibility to create a safe and inclusive workplace free from discrimination. If you allow gender discrimination to take place in your workplace, you may be held liable.

In some instances, gender discrimination may already be prevalent in your workplace. To help prevent and resolve gender discrimination, employers should put in place the following strategies to address violations.

Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy

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.

Employers 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.

Get Advice on How to Prevent Gender Discrimination with BrightHR

As an employer, it is important to establish, maintain, and enforce policies to promote a healthy and inclusive workplace.

If you fail to address or ignore situations of gender discrimination, you may be at risk of a human rights claim, which could lead to you paying thousands of dollars in legal fees and payouts.

If you need assistance with drafting workplace violence and harassment policies and procedures, or even looking to update current ones, our BrightAdvice service allows you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have.

Contact us on 18882204924 or book a demo today.

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