What It's Like to Be Labeled the Wrong Gender At Work

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(CNN) "Excuse me, this is the women's restroom."

Being mistaken for the wrong gender can be uncomfortable or embarrassing for anyone.

But being "misgendered" at work can be particularly stressful for transgender employees, non-binary colleagues or those with different gender expressions. In some cases, it can even exacerbate past trauma.

Bailey Grey, a transgender woman, said she was misgendered a few times at a previous job by colleagues who used incorrect pronouns when referring to her and her work.

"When it happens, it's this little thing that completely distracts you from everything you're doing," she says. "You're not thinking about the work or anything else other than 'What did I do wrong today to make them think about me this way?'"

Even though it only happened a few times, it still had a lasting impact.

"The further you get away from your transition, it's like, 'More times?' It starts to become disrespectful," she says. "You're thinking, 'They can't get something as simple as a pronoun correct?'"

The problem always occurred in person, she says, and not over email, because people tend to take more care with their pronoun use when writing.

She tried to correct the pronoun in the moment, which can be difficult for people who are already conflict-averse or have anxiety in the workplace.

Emily Plombon, a mental health counselor in Minneapolis, identifies as a lesbian woman. But because of her short hair and androgynous clothing, she said she's frequently mistaken for a man — especially in locker rooms and restrooms. She calls public restrooms her "worst nightmare."

"In the workplace, I never really experienced harassment, other than being misgendered when I first started, and that happened constantly, unbelievably so," Plombon says. "Any public restroom that I use, I go in with the assumption that somebody is going to do a double take or someone is going to be like 'Excuse me, you're in the wrong place.'"

Changing the conversation

Trangender and other misgendered people shouldn't be the only ones leading the charge on changing people's attitudes, says Beck Bailey, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign's workplace equality program.

"It's really incumbent upon all of us as we learn more about these conversations to work on not assuming the genders of folks that haven't disclosed to us how they identify, and working to have language that is more inclusive and neutral all the way around," says Bailey.

Part of the solution could be to standardize pronoun identification, like by adding your pronouns to your company profile page or your email signature, or bringing up the importance of pronoun awareness at a team meeting.

That way, the onus isn't on the person likely to be misgendered to announce "Yes, I'm a woman" or "No, I'm actually a 'he.'"

Another, more complex solution could be to offer a gender-neutral restroom on every floor. Plombon says having a gender-neutral bathroom is the simplest thing a workplace can do to make everyone feel more comfortable. But adding a bathroom isn't always practical for employers. Plumbing codes, architectural limitations and other hurdles can make it impossible for some workplaces.

Despite logistical obstacles, even something as simple as changing a restroom sign can send a big signal, says Max Masure, co-founder of Argo Collective.

At a recent conference, he printed out new signs for the bathrooms, effectively turning the existing stalls into gender-neutral bathrooms.

"Describe what's inside the bathroom instead of who is allowed to use them," he wrote in an email to CNN. "This way we focus on what we want to do in the bathroom, which puts the focus away from putting labels on people."


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