11.2 Dimensions of Diversity

In this Section

We will discuss a number of dimensions of diversity, including:


Race is often difficult to talk about, not because of the inherent complexity of the term itself, but because of the role that race plays in society. Race is what we call a loaded word because it can bring up strong emotions and connotations. Understandings of race fall into two camps: a biological versus a sociopolitical construction of what it means to belong to a particular racial group. A biological construction of race claims that “pure” races existed and could be distinguished by such physical features as eye color and shape, skin color, and hair. Moreover, these differences could be traced back to genetic differences. This theory has been debunked by numerous scientists and been replaced with the understanding that there are greater genetic differences within racial groups, not between them. In addition, there is no scientific connection with racial identity and cultural traits or behaviors. From a biological standpoint, race is not a valid construct. 

Instead of biology, we draw on a sociopolitical understanding of what it means to be of a particular race. This simply means that it is not a person’s DNA that places them into a particular racial grouping, but all of the other factors that create social relations—politics, geography, or migration. We can also examine the reality that the meanings of race have changed across time and space. As dramatized in the film, “Gangs of New York,” the Irish were once considered a minority with little social or political status. Now, being Irish in America (or Irish-Canadian) is considered part of the general majority group. Noting the change from the biological to the sociopolitical understanding, we refer to race as “a largely social—yet powerful— construction of human difference that has been used to classify human beings into separate value-based categories” (Orbe & Harris, 2012). Racism is institutional and involves the unequal accessibility to resources and power; maintaining systems of dominance, privilege, and oppression. Racism in the modern Canadian workplace can show up in many ways and be either intentional or unintentional, from screening out or prioritizing certain names on résumes to assuming the racialized person in the room is the server or assistant. For many people in Canada’s dominant group, being called a racist is a tremendous insult that can immediately shut down communication. Ironically, the power to shut down or ignore communication related to racial discrimination is a racist act. People with good interpersonal communication skills can navigate their discomfort long enough to focus on listening, reflecting, and collaborating to find solutions.


Ethnicity refers to a person’s or people’s heritage and history, and involves shared cultural traditions and beliefs. Many Canadians identify with several ethnicities (-Canadian). There has been much debate about whether and how information about race and ethnicity in Canada should be tracked (if at all). To see examples of changes to self-reported ethnicities on the Canada census refer to the article entitled, Ethnic or cultural origins: Technical report on changes for the 2021 Census. Proposals include indigenous origins, country of origin, and culture/ethnic origins (Statistics Canada, 2020).


Nationality refers to a people’s nation-state of residence or where they hold citizenship. Most often nationality is derived from the country where one was born, but on occasion people give up their citizenship by birth and migrate to a new country where they claim national identity. For example, an individual could have been born and raised in another country but once they migrate to the Canada and have citizenship, their nationality becomes Canadian.

It is illegal in Canada to discriminate against someone on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or nationality at work. It can create a toxic or poisoned work environment.

For more information about rights and laws in Canada see this brochure from the Ontario Human Rights Commission: Racial Harassment – Know Your Rights.


A person’s sex is a label, often designated by doctors at birth as male or female, based on an individual’s genitals, hormones, and/or chromosomes. According to the Intersex Society of North America, “intersex” is a general term used when a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY. It is important to note that male, female, and intersex aren’t discrete categories, just labels based on social convention.

Regardless of whether an individual is male, female, or intersex it is illegal to discriminate in the workplace in Ontario on the basis of sex.

One notable case of workplace discrimination on the basis of sex concerns job security and a woman’s reproductive rights. Women should not experience workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. This includes hiring, promotions, parental leave, and return to work after pregnancy (OHRC, 2014). Women in Ontario also have a right to breastfeed their child and be provided a private place to express breastmilk while at work. Learn more at the Ontario Human Rights Code – Sex.


The Ontario Human Rights Code uses the term sex to encompass discrimination based on sex and/or gender. However, for our purposes these terms are distinct. While sex is a biological category, gender is, “the social construction of masculinity or femininity as it aligns with designated sex at birth in a specific culture and time period.” (Pettitt, 2012). An individual is said to be cisgender if the gender that they identify is consistent the sex that they were assigned at birth. When an individual does not identify with the gender of the sex that they were assigned at birth, they may identify as transgender.

Our culture and socialization helps us to learn expected expressions of masculinity and femininity. Another expression of gender is known as androgyny, the term we use to identify gendered behavior that lies between feminine and masculine

Many folks will not identify as transgender, but also do not identify with the sex that they were assigned at birth. Some individuals do not identify as either male or female (non-binary, agender), their gender changes (gender fluid), or identify outside of the gender binary in other ways (genderqueer, gender non-conforming).

Transphobia is “ the aversion to, fear or hatred or intolerance of trans people and communities. Like other prejudices, it is based on stereotypes and misconceptions that are used to justify discrimination, harassment and violence toward trans people” (OHRC, 2014, Appendix B). It is important to respect an individual’s gender identity and gender expression. This includes being mindful of an individual’s choice of pronouns and personal names. In addition, workplaces should respect an individual’s gender identity when it comes to washrooms, work uniforms, and workplace documents (OHRC, 2014).

It is illegal to discriminate in Ontario workplaces on the basis of gender, gender identity, or gender expression.

Failing to respect someone’s pronouns is an example of gender-based harassment.  Transphobia is one of many types of sexual harassment that are illegal in Ontario workplaces. To learn more: OHRC – Sexual and Gender Based Harassment.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for sexual or romantic relationships; one may prefer a partner of the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or none.  Even though sexual orientation is a protected grounds of employment, individuals that do not conform to societal heteronormative standards often still have to contend on a daily basis that some people think they are deviant. This may result in harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Research shows that one of the most important issues relating to sexual orientation is the disclosure of sexual identity in the workplace. Employees may fear the reactions of their managers and coworkers, leading to keeping their sexual identity a secret (Ragins et al., 2007).

Discrimination and harassment on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation is illegal in Ontario.

To learn more, see OHRC – Discrimination and Harassment because of Sexual Orientation.


Employers are required to respect and accommodate an individual’s religion (aka creed). While the early White settlers were most often Protestant or Roman Catholic, the diversity of religions in Canada has significantly expanded to include all major world religions and increasingly people who do not prescribe to any creed. The OHRC (2015) notes that that there is much work to be done with respect to Indigenous traditions after generations of Indigenous people in Canada were stripped of their opportunity to practice their traditions while in the residential school system. In Ontario in the past few years, an increase in hate-based crimes has also been noted against members of the Jewish and Islamic faith communities (Moreau, 2020).

In the workplace, it is important for employers to respect an accommodate an individual based on their religion. This includes dress, food, and accommodation for religious observances. 

To learn more see OHRC Preventing Discrimination Based on Creed.


According to Statistics Canada (2015), over 11 percent of Canadians experience pain, mobility, or flexibility challenges. These can be severe enough to require a wheelchair or other mobility aid, or they can be less severe but still make it difficult for people to do jobs that require some type of movement or labour. The next most common disability among Canadians was mental or psychological disabilities (3.9 percent). These commonly include depression and anxiety; however, a great many others exist that are less familiar to the general public. Dexterity problems is the next most common category, affecting 3.5 percent of Canadians. Dexterity limits can affect a person’s motor function and can make moving around the worksite a challenge. It can also make it difficult for people to use computers and other digital devices.About 5.9 percent of Canadians have some type of vision or hearing problem, be it total blindness or deafness, or partial use of these senses.

While other areas like memory, learning, and developmental disabilities can also pose barriers, specific tools and aids can be useful for employees with disabilities. For example, wheelchairs and arm supports can make movement possible, while hearing aids and magnifiers can make hearing or vision clearer. For people who are blind, interaction with computers is possible with the aid of screen readers and text-to-speech technology.

People with ability challenges can be a significant boost to the ability of an organization to reach its market. Those who experience these things on a daily basis have an insight that other people who do not live with a disability cannot have. Environmental factors can play a part in making the work day of a person with a disability more of a challenge than it should be. For example, buildings that do not have ramps at the front entrance may instead fit an accessible entrance at the rear of the building. While this may not seem like a problem for some people, a person using a wheelchair or other assistive device (e.g., walker) will need to access the building differently than others, which may bring up feelings of exclusion.

A main communication challenge that arises here is misunderstanding on the part of people who are not living with a disability. Supportive communication with others seems to be the key for making employees feel at home. Because the visible differences between individuals may act as an initial barrier against developing rapport, employees with disabilities and their co-workers may benefit from being proactive in relationship development (Colella & Varma, 2001). Another key way to make a people with different abilities feel confident in the workplace is to consider accessibility.

It is illegal to harass or discriminate in the workplace because of a visible or hidden disability.

To learn more see OHRC – disability, and the Employment Standard of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

Let’s Focus

Illegal Interview Questions?

I think I am being asked illegal interview questions. What can I do?

In Canada, demographic characteristics such as race, gender, national origin, age, and disability status are protected by law. Yet, job applicants have been asked illegal interview questions. How can you answer such questions?

Here are some options.

  • Refuse to answer. You may point out that the question is illegal and refuse to answer. Of course, this may cost you the job offer, because you are likely to seem confrontational and aggressive.
  • Answer shortly. Instead of giving a full answer to a question such as “are you married,” you could answer the question briefly and change the subject. In many cases, the interviewer may be trying to initiate small talk and may be unaware that the question is potentially illegal.
  • Answer the intent. Sometimes, the illegal question hides a legitimate concern. When you are being asked where you are from, the potential employer might be concerned that you do not have a work permit. Addressing the issue in your answer may be better than answering the question you are being asked.
  • Walk away from the interview. If you feel that the intent of the question is discriminatory, and if you feel that you would rather not work at a company that would ask such questions, you can always walk away from the interview. If you feel that you are being discriminated against, you may also want to talk to a lawyer later on.



This section is adapted from:

Process of Communication by Tammera Stokes Rice which is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

3.2 Demographic Diversity in NSCC Organizational Behaviour by NSCC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

29. Introduction to Diversity in Professional Communications by Olds College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Colella, A., & Varma A. (2001). The impact of subordinate disability on leader-member exchange relationships. Academy of Management Journal44, 302–315.

Moreau, G. (2020). Police-reported hate crimes in Canada, 2018. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2020001/article/00003-eng.htm

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2012). Racial harassment: Know your rights. [brochure]. https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/racial-harassment-know-your-rights-brochure

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2014). Policy on preventing discrimination because of pregnancy and breastfeeding. https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-discrimination-because-pregnancy-and-breastfeeding

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2015). Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed. https://www3.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/Policy%20on%20preventing%20discrimination%20based%20on%20creed_accessible_0.pdf

Orbe, M. P. & Harris, T. M., (2012). Interracial communication: Theory into practice (3rd ed). Sage.

Pettitt, J. (2012). The trans umbrella. Print.

Ragins, B. R., Singh, R., & Cornwell, J. M. (2007). Making the invisible visible: Fear and disclosure of sexual orientation at work. Journal of Applied Psychology92, 1103–1118.

Statistics Canada. (2015). Disability in Canada: Initial findings from the Canadian Survey on Disability.   http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-654-x/89-654-x2013002-eng.htm.

Statistics Canada. (2020, July 15). Ethnic or cultural origins: Technical report on changes for the 2021 Census. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2021/ref/98-20-0002/982000022020001-eng.cfm


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Psychology, Communication, and the Canadian Workplace Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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