Special to The Globe and Mail
Near my home in downtown Calgary, a century-old schoolhouse reminds us how societal concepts around gender have changed. Two entrances on the same side of the building, one for boys and one for girls, are marked in sandstone. They weren’t kidding. In 1912, it was improper for school-aged boys and girls to use the same door.
By today’s standards, this seems comically outdated. And in the 21st century, there are new societal trends and concepts around gender – and where things go from here will have economic and financial impacts on those old 20th-century business models.
For example, transgender Canadians are finding a voice and seeking what millions of other marginalized groups have demanded (and generally won): recognition. And it’s not just transgender people; it’s asexual, two-spirited, bisexual, gay and lesbian Canadians. Slotting people into boxes – one labelled “boy” and one labelled “girl” – is becoming an anachronism. People are diverse in their gender identity. They will no longer tick one box or the other.
Reasonable people can disagree whether this trend is positive or not, but I’d like to suggest that it is inevitable. The age of differentiating individuals into two rigid gender categories will soon be gone. Therefore, it makes sense to consider what this brave new world of gender ambiguity might mean for businesses and the economy.
Consider building codes. Currently, most provincial standards require separate washrooms for men and women, and access for the physically challenged. (And readers who know where I’m going with this should remember that, decades ago, it was unthinkable that private businesses would be required by law to construct washrooms capable of accommodating a wheelchair).
Building codes in the future will almost certainly require entirely gender-neutral washrooms. The idea of one washroom for men and one for women will seem as laughably archaic as separate school-entrances for boys and girls. And stand-alone, gender-neutral washrooms are more expensive to build. They require much more space, more plumbing and more HVAC per user than traditional washrooms.
Or think of the insurance industry. Actuarial tables for everything from life expectancy to statistical probabilities for diseases or accidents often depend on the gender of the client. But what if it becomes impossible to ascertain gender? What happens to actuarial science when a key variable cannot be determined? How will it change the industry? Premiums? And payouts?
The airline industry is another mystery. I’ve never been given a good explanation why, when booking a flight online, you must click “male” or “female.” Perhaps there is a good reason, but what happens when the courts rule that this question is no longer appropriate? Will that change anything for airline safety? Or is the entire question only for marketing purposes – and, if that’s the case, how will airlines adjust to not knowing how to target their customers?
Then there are more trivial situations arising at dry cleaners and hair salons. Why does cleaning a men’s cotton dress shirt cost less than a women’s cotton blouse? (A female friend of mine takes her dress shirts to the cleaners, but tells them that they are her fathers – and pays the lower men’s price). Will this silly gender differentiation end? And if it does, will men end up having to pay more? Or will women pay less? How does the business model change?
All sorts of industries make decisions or ask questions based on clients’ DNA. If their chromosomes are XY, there is one price or policy, and if they’re XX, there is another. Whether there are legitimate health or safety reasons for this, our society is rapidly moving toward a place where it will be impossible (or illegal) to ask.
I’m not trying to stir the pot asking whether there are two, or six, or a thousand gender identities. Rather, I’m pointing out that this is reality – and there are economic and business-model implications. The sooner industries can anticipate what gender ambiguity means for them, the better equipped they’ll be able to manage it.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.