Presented 2 February 2017 at the Quality Network for Universities Conference sponsored by The Conference Board of Canada, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Universities can play a central role in the articulation and creation of social change. However, universities are usually not the initial drivers of such change. Particularly in the context of gender diversity, social change has often been driven to universities by grassroots activism and the eventual entry of such activists into the academy. It was the increasing visibility of trans and gender-nonconforming patients with questions doctors couldn’t answer and the gradually increasing presence of openly trans-identified medical students that drove medical schools to begin updating their curricula. In the realm of business and entrepreneurship, it has been the identification of market needs that has often first pushed forward diversity initiatives, not a trickle-down of academic scholarship on their merits and ethical imperatives. For example, the Greater Vancouver and Victoria areas have seen recent growth in start-ups and professional occupations that haven’t been taught or studied: transgender and gender diversity consultancies created, owned, and delivered by trans- and non-binary identified individuals. No doubt these will be eventually included in business curricula.

The relationship between social change in the area of gender and post-secondary education is symbiotic and synergistic, rather than unidirectional. Universities have significantly expanded our knowledge base and contributed to social and legal change by giving research, scholarship and activism on LGBTQ and two-spirit issues an intellectual and a safe home. As university administrators and educators, we carry a social responsibility to serve as a critical sounding board and offer our campus as an incubator for social change. Sometimes, a university course is the first place where a student is expected to engage with notions of sexual and gender diversity; sometimes it’s the first place where a student is expected to engage with sexual and gender diversity issues directly with other students or instructors who identify as trans, gender-nonconforming or two-spirit.

Today, many Canadian universities offer stories that reflect the safe haven narrative and seek to extend it to gender diverse students, such as the University of Winnipeg’s Fall 2017 pilot project offering specific gym time to female and non-binary students to “promote a diverse and inclusive culture of respect within all recreation services and facilities” and responding to concern that “some students do not feel welcome or safe at campus gyms” (Encouraging Recreation Opportunities, 2017).

It is important to frame comments on gender diversity in 2017 by looking back to the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer rights because it is out of that historical context that today’s discourse of gender diversity emerges. But because gender identity is different from sexual orientation, gender diversity discourse also taps into anti-segregation discourses and the larger organizing of the human social community. This means that gender diversity and gender equity discourses often co-exist in a state of tension.

When I see conference announcements, calls for papers, or post-secondary administration round tables on “gender” or “gender equity,” my first responses are trepidation and skepticism. Skepticism, because I have learned that even now, “gender equity” is typically cast as the problem of structural discrimination against women by men in a system that is understood to be binary and cisgender. Trepidation, because I have learned that questioning this understanding in the context of gender equity is not always welcome.

By and large, public Canadian post-secondary educations appear philosophically committed to appreciating and celebrating the gender diversity of students, faculty, and staff and open to teaching and studying related topics. When I transitioned at my home institution, Royal Roads University, in 2009, I was fortunate to feel fully supported by the University administration and community, and together with our Human Resources Department, we created a bit of a path for future faculty and staff who may wish to socially and/or physically transition on the job. But social change goes beyond acceptance of visibility, appreciation and celebration. The process of arriving at a sincere understanding and recognition of multiple and overlapping identities is challenging, complex, and – unfortunately – never complete, usually contextual, and always changing. Our cultural identities are multiple and overlapping – and all of us have them. This observation cannot be reduced to identity politics. Rather this is about our place and self-understanding as universities.

Communication scholar Gust Yep warns against treating intersectionality in a “simplistic, formulaic” fashion in which “the individual’s race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality” constitute a list of identity categories (2010, p. 173). Instead, Yep suggests, we need to embrace the concept of “thick intersectionalities” (2010, p. 172), which takes into account individualized histories, vectors of difference, personal agency, systemic arrangements and structural forces.

Attending to thick intersectionalities in this manner means that one “should attend to the lived experiences and biographies of the persons occupying a particular intersection, including how they inhabit and make sense of their own bodies” (2013, p. 123). Trans, non-binary, and two-spirit identified persons can be highly privileged or highly marginalized, or anything in between; they may or may not experience their gender or sexual orientation as an identity; their identities may shift or be constructed differently depending upon the context – just like cisgender men and women may experience their identities if we were to examine that process closer, but we usually do not.

Numerically, fewer members of our university community experience themselves as trans, non-binary, gender diverse or two-spirit, meaning that their experiences are not as commonly encountered or understood. The pedagogical, scholarly, and administrative challenge resides right there, at this junction of knowledges. There is a difference between identity politics and being aware of how one’s situatedness in the world shapes one’s being in the world. Systemic inequities are operationalized, implemented, made possible, and normalized in the myriad human interactions that play out over a given day. As university administrators, we cannot control human interaction. We can set a tone, role model, and open our own interactions up to scrutiny.

Working in a supportive environment doesn’t mean I don’t have to navigate (sometimes physically, sometimes socially) gender barriers on a daily basis in my personal and professional life. Being transgender or non-binary means thinking about language, voice, clothing, involuntary and voluntary self-representation and self-disclosure, and physical space all of the time. When I leave campus and encounter new publics, I am thrown back into uncertainty and risk – even at this conference. Ultimately, there is little escape from gender for any of us, and arguably it is the unquestioned primacy of binary gender constructions that may pose the most significant gender diversity and equity challenge to universities in the near future.

The January 2017 National Geographic special issue on “The shifting landscape of gender” is titled “GENDER Revolution.” Its cover features seven young people, diverse in ethnicity and gender (such as intersex nonbinary, transgender female, bi-gender, transgender male, androgynous, male). A revolution, however, would seem a short-sighted aspiration. Normative, binary understandings of gender govern our institutions in subtle but persistent, structural, and systemic ways, ways that the installation of a rainbow crosswalk cannot detour.

As university administrators and educators, we are responding to previously undocumented needs of students, faculty, and staff by creating policies on gender diversity and inclusion. A policy scan of North American universities prepared for the Deputy Provost of Student Affairs and Services at Memorial University of Newfoundland by the university’s Trans* Needs Committee (Rees & Marshall, 2012) identified seven areas as “having an impact on the daily life and wellbeing of trans* students.” These areas are non-discrimination policies; health care; housing; washrooms; records and documents; programming, training, and support; and athletics and facilities. Many universities are creating, or have created, policies designed to support employees and students pursuing social and/or physical gender transition, or working and studying equitably in the gender they identify. This is easier to pursue when an employee or student is transitioning to another binary designation; it is much harder to do when an employee or student identifies as agender, non-binary, intersex, or gender-nonconforming.

Universities are the people that comprise them. As people, we respond to stimuli, and in a world marked by a complexity that is beyond our grasp, we respond to events, be that a complaint, a lawsuit (or the threat of a lawsuit), a curricular initiative, a national or international political phenomenon, a call from University Relations, or the formation of a grassroots committee. This can, and indeed often has, led to social change (keeping in mind it’s important to not understand social change as inherently positive or ethical). So administrators have helped along bottom-up (and occasionally top-down) initiatives such as introducing accessible washroom spaces, allowing for gender marker and name changes, responding to transphobic reactions, supporting trans- and gender inclusive curricula, funding trans-inclusive committees, considering the relevance of gender to admission applications and so forth.

But beyond that, some of the changes driven by iceberg sightings of transgender and non-binary people are floating on much deeper currents of change, a systematic rethinking and unthinking of gender – based not on identity politics but based on new understandings of the gendered self, as understood at the intersection of social and natural sciences as much as the humanities. We have a critical role to play in helping conceptualize how we view the world now affirming in our policies, now knowing that humans naturally occur in more than two binary genders, that their gender identifications may fluctuate throughout the lifespan or may be fluid in the moment. As much as all of us comprise a university, one cannot, at the same time, allocate gym space to non-binary and trans students over here and presume that all of us identify as men and women over there.

This is not about accommodation; it is about knowledge, and preparing our students, faculty and staff to live and work effectively while thinking about gender in a new way. This is a monumental task, certainly not a task that could be achieved by an individual administrator, a committee, or a single university over a generation or two. It requires slow, gradual, and constant re-thinking.

Let me offer a few considerations and questions for further thought:

  • Do you greet audiences with “Ladies and Gentlemen?”
  • When you pursue internationalization, do you consider the implications of travelling abroad for trans and gender diverse faculty, staff, and students?
  • When you hear “gender diversity,” what do you hear?
  • If you are seeking gender representation on a hiring committee, are you balancing out “women” and “men” and what measure do you use? If you have an openly trans-identified committee member, how do you assess them in that role? How about a gender-nonconforming person?
  • Do you ask students to declare their sex/gender on their application for admission? Why?
  • Do you divide group activities into gendered groups? Do you designate groups as “co-ed” rather than just “anyone” or “gender-inclusive”?
  • How do you create and maintain a respectful campus climate when some use the pronoun “they” or “ze” or none at all and present in gender diverse ways? How do you respond when others (students, staff, faculty) don’t respect the individual’s pronoun’s use?
  • Do you segregate housing by binary sex? Do you ask incoming students if they are “OK” living with trans or non-binary students? Why or why not?
  • When you, your students, or your faculty conduct research on “women” and/or “men,” do you operationalize these concepts on the assumption of bio-essentialism?
  • When you review research ethics applications, do you ask why a research project seeks to construct men and women or girls and boys as distinct groups? Do you ask whether gender is a relevant construct to this study? Do you ask why a project seeks to study the experiences of trans or gender diverse people, who are simultaneously subject to being over-researched and disproportionately vulnerable to discrimination, marginalization and social isolation?
  • When you design career support and advising services, do you consider the needs of gender diverse, gender-nonconforming and trans students?
  • Do the software systems you rely on for the organization of daily university life demand that you think in gendered binaries? Are these truly necessary fields?
  • When you approve job postings, do you take a second to assess whether the language used tends to be perceived as ‘feminine’ or masculine’ or do you seek to create gender-neutral language?
  • How do you respond to complaints that introducing “safe gym times” (as at the University of Winnipeg) further segregate and discriminate and prevent rather than enable the creation of a safe, inclusive campus environment?

These aren’t easy questions, and there are no easy answers. Think 10 years into the future. The elementary school students now identifying as non-binary, gender non-conforming, gender creative, gender diverse, agender or transgender; their playmates; their family members; their teachers and school administrators who have been at the forefront of advocating for more equitable gender practices, washroom by washroom, play group by play group, will have expectations for universities. These are expectations that our current system is not equipped to handle, and the mere presence of a trans or gender-nonconforming administrator or faculty member or a task force won’t suffice to bring about systemic change. That change has to be driven by all of us, regardless of our gender identity.

After I transitioned, I realized gradually that I was being left out of women-related meetings, conference calls, and organizing unless it was an LGBTQ/two-spirit oriented meeting. It wasn’t necessarily that I wasn’t welcome anymore but the change was mostly gradual, silent, structural and incidental – as if those issues were – as women’s issues – no longer of interest to me. Unless one knows that I am transgender, the simple fact that I have a male-identified first name signals a gendered history that does not align with all of my life experience. And you’d be surprised (or not) how much organizing occurs within university systems on the basis of assumed gender (and ethnic) representation. The visible presence of transmasculine-identified and transfeminine-identified faculty, students and staff at many institutions are shedding light on how core issues such as feminism and male privilege cannot be addressed by binary thinking.

Gender equity must be understood as a common good to be sought after by people of all genders, and gender equity efforts themselves have to strive to be inclusive. As post-secondary administrators, we do not have the luxury to consult philosophical treatises before responding to an email requesting an immediate response, to conduct a year-long community consultation before responding to a media query, or to immerse ourselves in the many communities we are accountable to. But we have the opportunity to listen, to contextualize, to ask, and to consider the potential interpretations of our actions. That opportunity is framed by the necessity to not think of ourselves as naturally inclusive, no matter how much we may see ourselves as champions of gender diversity.

In 1963, Clark Kerr, then President of the University of California’s 7- campus system, wrote of the university as “a whole series of communities and activities held together by a common name, a common board, and related purposes” (p. 1). Today’s “multiversity,” Kerr wrote, is “an inconsistent institution” (p. 18) that must simultaneously serve and critique society. This multiversity “looks far into the past and far into the future, and is often at odds with the present.” (p. 19). Half a century later, these words still ring true. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean at Princeton and professor at Harvard Law School, writes of the necessity to examine how women and men “are trapped, forced into culturally defined roles.” “The ultimate goal,” she writes in the concluding commentary of the January 2017 National Geographic issue, “surely, is to let all people define themselves as human beings, to break out of assigned categories and challenge received wisdom.” It’s difficult to consider that the needed consequence of gendering post-secondary education might be the intentional dismantling not of gender itself but of the primacy of gender constructs in our systems. Sometimes looking into the future does put us at odds with the present.


Kerr, C. (1963). The uses of the university. New York: Harper & Row.

Rees, K., & Marshall, Z. (Eds.) (2012). Policy scan of North American universities regarding gender diversity and inclusion. Prepared by the Trans Needs Committee of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Available from

Slaughter, A.-M. (2017, January). Our evolving sense of self. National Geographic Special Issue: The Shifting Landscape of Gender, pp. 153-154.

Yep, G. A. (2010). Toward the de-subjugation of racially marked knowledges in communication, Southern Communication Journal, 75(2), 171-175, DOI: 10.1080/10417941003613263 To link to this article: http://dx.d

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