We have long surpassed the satirical singularity, my friends. In what sounds like an Onion headline, but I promise you is very real, two women invented a male co-founder named “Keith” for their startup in order to be taken more seriously. And, as Quartz states, it worked. Apparently the secret to getting ahead in your career if you’re a woman is to somehow magically turn yourself into a man with a white-sounding name.
Last year, Kate Dwyer and Penelope Gazin launched Witchsy, a curated online marketplace for art that’s weird, raunchy, and all-around wonderful. If you’re thinking that sounds familiar, that’s intentional. The site’s name was inspired by Esty’s ban on selling witch spells in 2015. Dwyer and Gazin anticipated hurdles, mostly financial or tech-based, in launching their online shop. Such is to be expected of starting a business. What they hadn’t fully anticipated is the sexism they’d face, both subtle and less so, that came with being entrepreneurs who are also young women.
“A lot of people looked at what we were doing like, ‘What a cute hobby!’ or ‘That’s a cute idea,'” Dwyer told Fast Company. The pair says they were met with doubt and condescension from, mostly male, designers, developers, artists who they hoped to collaborate with. “They’d say things like ‘Listen, girls…,’” Dwyer tells Quartz, referring to email they’d received from potential collaborators.
So, the Gazin and Dwyer decided to bring in Keith Mann, Witchsy co-founder who’s a “dude’s dude,” loves his wife of five years, could have played football in college, and is totally, 100 percent made-up. Yes, Gazin and Dwyer made up a male co-founded whose last name was “Mann,” and it actually changed the way people communicated with them over email.
According to Quartz, Keith spent six months communicating with clients over email. If an associate didn’t seem too keen on trying to work with a couple of women, they’d send it Keith. And low and behold, things would magically get accomplished. “It was very clear no one took us seriously and everybody thought we were just idiots,” Dwyer told Quartz. But when “Keith” sent them an email? “They’d be like ‘Okay, bro, yeah, let’s brainstorm!’” Dwyer said.
This kind of subtle sexism became more clear as Keith continued to contact clients. “It would take me days to get a response,” Dwyer told Fast Company, “but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with.”
This difference in treatment, just by a simple masculine-sounding name change, should come as little surprise. Earlier this year, a pair of male and female co-workers accidentally swapped names at work and took to Twitter to share the subtle yet stark difference in how they were treated. There is a long history of women pretending to be men in order to assert themselves into social and occupational spaces from which they’re otherwise prohibited or to avoid discriminatory treatment.
In addition to affecting women, name discrimination most significantly targets people of color. Multiple studies have found that employers tend to favor names that sound white and male. While a name change may seem silly or Shakespearean, it comes needing to escape a more insidious bias. So, if you’re wondering, “What’s in a name?” The answer is: a lot.
“I think a lot of times as women, we’re always accommodating everyone else’s emotions first,” Dwyer told Quartz. “In business, that’s not really possible and so we just kind of gave that up.” Dwyer and Gazin have since retired Keith and joked about filling his role with a new fake guy, “Ted.” While I’m all for job growth, perhaps it’s best for progress if Keith’s position doesn’t get backfilled.