Misgendering Persists After Pronoun Correction
Linas Mitchell, Loyola University Chicago
Misgendering (incorrectly labeling an individual’s gender) is a common experience for transgender people associated with psychological distress and low self-evaluations (McLemore, 2015; 2018). The workplace is a common context for misgendering, with one national survey showing the majority of transgender workers have accepted misgendering to avoid more severe discrimination such as harassment or being fired (James et al., 2016). When transgender people choose to address misgendering, what impact does this have on how they are perceived?
In a laboratory experiment, we explored how observers perceived the gender of an applicant who addressed misgendering during an interview. Two-hundred ninety undergraduates listened to a supposed job interview with an applicant who had a stereotypically feminine or masculine voice. The interviewer referred to the applicant by name and with the pronouns stereotypically associated with the voice-type (“he” for masculine-voiced, “she” for feminine-voiced). Participants were randomly assigned to hear one of several corrections. In the feminine-voiced condition, the applicant corrected the interviewer by stating their pronouns as either he/him or they/them. In the masculine-voiced condition, the applicant stated either she/her or they/them pronouns. As a control condition, applicants of both voice-types corrected for the pronunciation of their name, tacitly accepting the pronouns used and implying a cisgender identity. Participants then reported their assumptions about the applicant’s gender, among other scales and free-responses.
We coded how participants labeled the applicant’s gender (male, female, or non-binary), as well as what sort of gendered language they used for the applicant throughout the free-response items. We considered participants to have correctly gendered the applicant if they applied the label typically associated with the applicant’s pronouns (female for she/her; male for he/him; non-binary for they/them) and used exclusively those pronouns.
Considering gender labels, pronoun-correctors were misgendered by 26-57% of participants, whereas name-correctors were never misgendered. For pronoun use, participants misgendered pronoun-correctors more than name-correctors; however, occasional use of they/them pronouns was unexpectedly common even for name-correctors. Furthermore, participants misgendered masculine-voiced they/them correctors (with both labels and pronoun use) and she/her correctors (with pronoun use) more than other pronoun-correctors.
When looking at the reasons given for their label, participants tended to mention either the applicant’s voice or the correction. Voice-based reasons predominated in the name-correction conditions, whereas correction-based reasons predominated for the pronoun-correctors. However, within pronoun-correctors, participants provided more voice-based and less correction-based reasons in the masculine-voiced they/them condition. Furthermore, voice-based reasoning predicted greater misgendering by label for pronoun-correctors, and correction-based reasoning predicted less.
Our data suggests that misgendering often persists after hearing a pronoun correction, and that this is the case when observers focus on stereotypical gender features (here, a person’s voice) rather than the pronoun correction. Differences in misgendering by voice-type also suggest that stereotypically masculine (versus feminine) features are weighted more heavily when determining gender. Future work will need to consider specific gendered language use rather than mere consistency with stated pronouns, particularly around the use of they/them pronouns for those with various personal pronouns.