What it’s like to navigate the workplace as a non-binary person

"There are a surprising number of things to consider when your appearance may be viewed as a political statement."

Elan Morgan

Elan Morgan

Last May, the Daily Beast ran a story that declared, “The Non-Binary Revolution Is Starting in Canada.” It went on to say that, “compared to the United States, Canada is light-years ahead on legal recognition for non-binary people, and for transgender people more broadly.” And it’s true—provinces and the federal government have taken many positive steps in a short period of time. Since 2017, the Northwest Territories, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador have all started allowing residents to choose a third gender option for their birth certificates. (Ontario also allows gender-neutral driver’s licenses.) In addition, a Saskatchewan court ruled residents could request the removal of gender markers from their birth certificates entirely. Meanwhile, the federal government added a third, non-binary gender designation for passports and immigration documents. And Statistics Canada announced it would be changing the way it collected information about data. Now, in addition to male and female options, respondents can opt to identify as “gender diverse,” which the agency defines as, “persons whose current gender was not reported exclusively as male or female… persons who were reported as being unsure of their gender, persons who were reported as both male and female, or neither male nor female.”

But how much has actually changed for non-binary folks? To find out what it’s really like to navigate the workplace as a non-binary person, we went to the source. Here’s what five Canadians told us about the sneaky ways an office can still impose a binary system, whether they’re out at work and what to do if you misgender a colleague.

There are a surprising number of things to consider when your appearance may be viewed as a political statement

In North America, we’ve been raised in a heavily gender-segregated culture. From the time we’re born, our clothing and toys and activities tend to be separated by biological sex, and our public spaces are also set up this way. This makes it challenging for people to understand gender and sex as separate concepts. It challenges not only how we design and use public space but also how each of us understands ourselves. Sometimes this means cisgender people feel like non-binary people who openly challenge traditional gender norms are being aggressively political. What’s truly happening is that their own previously invisible social defaults are just no longer adequate.

When I first started building a professional wardrobe, I worried over so many things: what kind of computer bag should I bring to meetings, were men’s shoes okay, was my shaved haircut too off-putting? I love the work I do and I wanted clients to be able to focus on what we could create together rather than be distracted by my appearance.

But there are a surprising number of things to consider when your appearance may be viewed as a political statement. As someone with a larger bustline, I’ve had a difficult time establishing a style that I like, doesn’t come off as too feminine and doesn’t defaulting to oversized shirts used as cloaking devices. I’ve discovered a great love of blazers paired with either jeans or flat front slacks, depending on the situation. Dressing has become a lot easier now that a more androgynous look has been creeping into mainstream fashion, though  —Elan Morgan, writer and web designer, Saskatchewan

I find it easier for people to relate to me and work with me when they think I’m one of them—a cishet person

I’m not out. Were I to come out as non-binary, I’d have to do so over and over because people read me a cis woman and it’s too exhausting to constantly tell people that I identify otherwise. I’d rather slip under the radar instead of having to repeatedly justify my gender identity like it’s up for debate. I often don’t even come out as queer. I find it easier for people to relate to me and work with me when they think I’m one of them—a cishet person.

My last full-time job was at a law firm, and the only times I came out were to my queer manager and via an anonymous survey administered by the company. There were three options for gender: ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘transgender.’ While I identify as non-binary and not trans, I was silently gleeful to be able to choose a third option.

My queerness and non-binary identity are critical pieces of me, and it’s hard because [that’s] a part of me that people don’t see. Spaces are opening up to be able to come out and feel comfortable without it compromising your job and relationships with colleagues, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet —Deidre Olsen, writer and digital marketing analyst, Ontario

I guess the main reason I’m out at work is that I knew it was safe to be

I currently have two jobs. My primary job is working for the city I live in, in a capacity that involves public engagement and education. I also work part-time at an indoor rock climbing gym.

I’m out at both of my current jobs. I was out in most areas of my life when I started and was very clear from the beginning about what my pronouns were. I was a bit anxious on my first day at the City, knowing I would have to have that conversation. I figured it would be fine because organizations that large have HR departments and tend to be pretty careful. When we did an initial round of introductions with all the new hires, one of the hiring managers asked us to share our pronouns as well, and I felt so much relief. It’s a really simple thing to do that can make a world of difference in creating a sense of safety for non-binary and trans employees. I guess the main reason I’m out at work is that I knew it was safe to be.

In both jobs, my coworkers have been respectful but not always very well-informed. I’ve had to do quite a bit of emotional labour in educating people. I’ve also received more than one super awkward, intense apology when someone misgendered me, which tends to end up with me telling them they’re still a good person. If you misgender someone, all you have to do is briefly apologize and do it better next time. I don’t need a soliloquy about how you’re really actually a great ally but it’s hard. —Finn, Western Canada

Things have changed so much in recent years

There are so many ways a workplace can be gendered: social stuff like ‘ladies’ nights’ or ‘just the guys’ games night, gender-specific bathrooms, meetings where women are expected to take minutes, the expectation that men will do heavy lifting or moving, dress code requirements—like heels or skirts—that makes certain tasks impossible, even small talk about marriage or kids.

I work in the IT department of a school board, so I work in at least 11 different locations now. I get called “Miss Pavlov” or, in the French Immersion schools, I get asked if I’m “Madame ou mademoiselle?” That’s frustrating. But things have changed so much in recent years. Many teachers and principals ask me what I like the students to call me. My answer is “Jo,” and that is respected. I occasionally get asked what my preferred pronoun is, which is amazing. (It’s “they.”) I have to say, working in education has been a gift to me, because of the equity policies and the respect for workplace harassment issues—never mind my charter rights and human rights.

In my IT department, it’s a bit trickier, though. It’s more of a corporate environment and for years there was a terrible Old Boys’ Club mentality that was actually exhausting. I felt gaslit a million times a day—I actually cried at the Fifth Estate exposé on the way CBC handled the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Seeing how they covered up for a powerful man’s bad behavior [was upsetting] because I had seen so much of that in my years in the workforce. —Jo Pavlov, IT field technician, Ontario

I’ve had people ask me in interviews, ‘Are you a lesbian?’”

Navigating the workplace as a non-binary person has been a process for me. It was much harder when I first entered the workplace after college—I didn’t feel like I had the power to set boundaries or stand up for myself. But the more life experience I gain, the more space I feel I’m allowed to take up.

I went to the job interview for my current job wearing clothes I felt relaxed in, because I did not want to work in a space where I would have to change who I am! I have definitely gone to job interviews and known immediately that I would not fit in at that workplace. I’ve had people ask me in interviews, “Are you a lesbian?” and, “How would you feel about working with women?” as if I am an “other” that needs to be surveilled. For those reasons, I recognize daily how lucky I was to get the job I currently have.

I’ve become a lot more confident in my presentation in the last few years. I am somewhat happy with my body and that makes all the difference. Being secure in who I know I am and in my abilities really allows me some space to breathe. It doesn’t matter to me which pronouns people use for me, I just go with it. (Many non-binary people do not feel this way about pronouns, though!) —Piper, graphic designer, Ontario