Like an inside joke nobody wants to hear, sexism is one of those things that's hard to explain unless you've experienced it firsthand. On Thursday, a Twitter thread about workplace sexism went viral after writer Martin R. Schneider recounted his experience working under his coworker's name for two weeks. If you've ever had the misfortune of working as anything other than a cisgender man, you can see where this is going: A hellscape of condescension, disrespect, and unwanted requests for a date.
Schneider currently edits the movie review website Front Row Central, but as he related on Thursday, he used to work at a small service firm. According to his tweets, his former boss always complained about his coworker (and future friend) Nicole Hallberg's productivity; apparently, she took longer to complete tasks involving client communication. Schneider assumed he was faster because he had more experience, but one day, after taking over a project for Hallberg, he noticed that a client was being particularly uncooperative.
"He [was] just being IMPOSSIBLE. Rude, dismissive, ignoring my questions," Schneider tweeted. In an email to Bustle, he elaborated, "I'd had difficult clients before, you can usually tell within the first interactions. I had probably been working with that client for a week and a half when I noticed the name."
As it turns out, Schneider had accidentally been using Hallberg's email signature with that client.
After he clearing up his identity, the client's attitude changed entirely, from dismissive to totally helpful. "The turnaround came quickly after I worked as 'Martin,' and I was able to complete the process in about a week," Schneider tells Bustle.
Knowing that the only thing that had changed was the perception of his gender, Schneider talked to Hallberg, who said the client's behavior was par for the course. As a result, they decided to conduct an informal experiment. Hallberg worked as "Martin Schneider" for two weeks, while Schneider signed off as "Nicole Hallberg." Schneider tweeted that he was "in hell" for that time, while Hallberg was getting things done far more easily than usual.
By the time the two weeks were over, Schneider realized that he and Hallberg's difference in productivity wasn't just the result of experience — he had an "invisible advantage" over his coworker.
Years later, Schneider decided to tweet about his brief experience with workplace sexism. "I kind of told the story on a whim. ... I was going to tell it for International Women's Day, but I figured that was a day for me to shut up and RT women," he writes to Bustle. "So I told it the next day, not expecting it to get as huge as it did." Hallberg has also since related her own side of the story in a post on Medium.
Schneider's thread garnered quite a bit of attention on Twitter, both positive and negative. Some of the more valid criticisms point out that Schneider is receiving heaps of praise for realizing workplace sexism exists after experiencing it for himself, rather than accepting women's word for it. In response, he tells Bustle that it's a "fair criticism," and he may have underestimated the sheer extent to which sexism pervades everyday life.
"There's a difference between knowing something exists and actually coming face-to-face with it, so I can understand that criticism and am trying to respond," he writes. He adds that the experiment changed his own interactions with women in the workplace.
"More than just the experiment, I learned mostly from just listening to women when they told similar stories," he tells Bustle. "What changed the most was that I became more attuned to watching how other men interacted with women at work, and used that to sort of self-monitor."
He's also gotten a fair amount of pushback from those he calls "STEM bros." Their problem isn't with the sexism Hallberg dealt with, or even Schneider's mentality prior to his experience. It's with the "experiment's" informal methods. "No duh, we were just two bored co-workers trying something while the boss was away," Schneider says.
What the STEM bros may not realize is that science backs up Schneider and Hallberg's experiences. Time and time again, research has shown that masculine names wield more influence and respect than feminine ones. In 2012, a Standford study found that when college faculty is given two identical resumes, the one with a male-sounding name is more likely to be hired and viewed as more competent. The "applicant" with the female-sounding name was also offered a far lower salary, because wage inequality hasn't gone anywhere.
Similarly, earlier this month, a University of Toronto study found a broader workplace bias against names that don't sound male and/or white. You know, in case you needed more evidence that discrimination is embedded in every aspect of society.
On the bright side, at least we're starting to acknowledge the problem, and that's the first step toward changing it. If enough women continue speaking about their own experiences with workplace sexism, our word will eventually be taken seriously. (I hope.) In the meantime, a note to the men reading this: Pay attention to what your women coworkers have to say — sexism isn't always readily visible.