Back in 2014, when we were busy smugly predicting that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge wouldn’t cure anything but were still doing it anyway, we were working for a company that edited and rewrote folks’ résumés. It was a pretty straightforward business model — our clients would email us their résumés, and we’d email them back with edits and questions until the résumé was as solid as we could make it. Our only interaction with clients was over email, and in the comment bubbles on their documents. No phone conversations, no face-to-face.
This job required crack editing skills, a bizarre amount of really niche info on every industry you could imagine, and the ability to churn out drafts fast.
We also spent an awful lot of time talking about workplace equality. Nicole was the only woman in this company of four. And while Martin had always been attentive and sympathetic when she told him how hard it could be for a woman who requires food and therefore a job, he didn’t get the chance to be empathetic until Nicole suggested that we try a little role reversal.
We already knew that sexism and racism was a huge problem in the workplace
We knew for a fact having a woman's name on a résumé was a huge strike against the applicant. We knew that. We worked around that all the time. We knew that those client résumés had to be bulletproof.
And we knew that even a vaguely "ethnic"-sounding name was a huge obstacle, and our clients knew it too. We'd have clients say, “Hey, people abbreviate their names sometimes to at least get into the interview. Should I do that?”
People would ask us that question all the time. That's a personal decision. I would provide them with resources. I would link to other things that people have written, but I never felt comfortable telling people how to make that decision for themselves. That's your identity, and it sucks that sometimes your identity can get in the way.
Sucks is an understatement. It's a little bit soul-crushing that knowing from the get-go that you were born with stumbling blocks. That some people are just born on third base for nothing that has anything to do with their work ethic or their intelligence. And that you're always going to have to work that little bit harder no matter what to gain the same amount of recognition and same trust and respect.
So, yeah, we knew all of this intellectually, but I hadn’t fully seen how it was playing out in our own professional lives until we did this little experiment.
The experiment: Martin signed his emails as Nicole. Nicole signed her emails as Martin.
We had a shared inbox with a drop-down menu where you would select your individual account and it would pop up with your signature when we were emailing back and forth with clients. I had been having some difficulties with a client. I’d dealt with difficult clients before, but this one was just really frustrating me. He was working in an industry that I knew fairly well and being dismissive of my comments. He would overexplain things to me that I already knew.
And then I realized: I had been signing all these outgoing emails as Nicole. I realized it was Nicole he was being rude to. For the sake of keeping a client happy, I said, “Hi, my name is Martin. I'm going to take over for Nicole.”
And there was an instant change in his approach. I didn't change anything other than my name. Suddenly I was being thanked. I was being thanked for questions. Information was presented freely instead of me having to tease it out of this gentleman.
I went to Nicole, and I asked her, “Does this happen a lot?” And she said, “Kind of, yeah.”
And then she had the idea: Let’s switch names on all our client emails from now on, both new and current clients. She would interact with clients as “Martin,” and I would interact with them as “Nicole.”
It was fascinating to put on privilege that I wasn't born with for a little while. Who gets to do that, right? Clients stopped second-guessing me and instead just answered all of my damn questions. When I signed emails as Nicole, I’d send a document to a client with a half-dozen or so questions attached, and half of my questions would go completely ignored or unanswered. That didn't happen when I was Martin.
The pet names stopped. No one called me sweetie when I was Martin — so that was nice. No one asked me personal questions when I was Martin.
I definitely got a "hon" when I was “Nicole.” I feel, like, almost 100 percent positive I got a “hon” or two in there.
They're too lazy to even write out the word honey when they’re being condescending.
“Hon” makes you sound like a truck stop waitress.
My favorite part is we don't agree on how long we did this experiment. Nicole says one week, I say two. I think that says a lot in and of itself.
To me, the experiment felt like an eternity. Clients overexplained terms that I very clearly knew. Little things like, "Well, I guess if you're not in this industry, it's really hard to understand," when I did in fact know the industry well. Or I would ask a question and they would ask why I was asking that question.
This was stuff I had dealt with before, when I signed my emails as a man. But signing as a woman, it was so much worse.
We’d both seen the problem of women being assumed to be incompetent before
In college, I studied English and writing, so my major was primarily women. A lot of the professors were women and women were the ones taking home the prizes and getting the best grades and introducing themselves at seminars and things like that.
But I also came from a really small town and worked a ton of really shit jobs to pay for what my heaps and heaps of student loan debt didn’t cover.
I worked at a Radio Shack, and I cannot tell you how many times customers would come in and I'd be like, “Hi, can I help you with anything, answer any questions?” They'd say, “No, I'm fine,” and then they'd walk straight past me to my male colleague and ask him for what they needed.
Sometimes I cornered someone and forced my help on them. I'd say, “You need this product, you can fix it with this wire, you need this to make the connection, etc.” And they would go double-check my answer with my male colleague to ask the exact same question.
I saw the same exact thing with my manager who knew this stuff up, down, and sideways even more than I did. She was female, and they did the exact same thing to her. They walked straight past her to the only male working in the store because, you know, boys know more about this stuff and girls don't, right?
I saw it every day. We used to laugh about it.
You know what's funny, I didn't realize it until you said it just now, Nicole. I was that male colleague. I also sold electronics at a big-box store and I did watch men walk directly past my female manager and just ask questions of me even when I pointed to her and said, “I'm sure she knows more about this than I do.”
I definitely saw that happen, and that's the more obvious kind of sexism. You can definitely point to those people and say, “That guy's a bad guy.”
What we're talking about in our name-switching experiment is the more casual, insidious, probably unconscious sexism. You have to make a conscious decision to walk past a female employee.
What happened after Martin tweeted about the experiment
The day after International Women’s Day, I decided to tweet about our name-switching experiment.
So here's a little story of the time @nickyknacks taught me how impossible it is for professional women to get the respect they deserve:— Martin R. Schneider (@SchneidRemarks) March 9, 2017
A lot of people are questioning my motives about why I posted this now. I wish I had a good answer for that. It's just that I like to use Twitter to tell stories, and this was a good story. It was right after International Women's Day. I didn't say anything on that day because I figured I'd just let the women talk. But the next day, I decided to post it because it's a good story.
And it got a ton of attention — thousands of retweets, and several articles in various publications.
My husband and I were laughing about the fact that all the headlines lead with, “Philadelphia Writer or Local Man or blah blah blah writer, This Dude. ... He discovered sexism.” And I'm always the aside. I’ve found that this story isn't worth much with just me. Plenty of much smarter, better women writers than I have been talking about gender bias for ages with little traction. I've been blogging about this stuff for years and been ranting about it since I could talk, but this is the first time anyone has seemed to pay any attention.
A lot of the criticism that I've been getting is from women saying, “Hey, here's this white guy who suddenly believes misogyny exists when he sees it in his own face. Why couldn't he just believe it?” I think that criticism is completely valid. I never believed that misogyny didn't exist. But I underestimated my own contribution to it. And I think there's a difference between knowing something exists and really experiencing it and understanding it. That was the shift for me.
I'm also aware that most of the reason people care about this story is that it came from me. My privilege kind of made the story. And I hate that — I'm not comfortable with how much of the narrative has been around me.
Our story got a lot of attention — but did it change anyone’s mind about the reality of sexism?
Some of the comments we’ve gotten about this have been terrible. People tell me I must have been bad at my job. Or that I must be in love with Martin. Or that we made the whole thing up for whatever reason and need to provide notarized original documents in triplicate PROVING that this happened before they’ll believe us. I had one comment apparently from a woman's account with a woman's picture on Twitter that said, "Clearly you are sexist against men. Men face sexualization too and it's not even taken seriously." Whatever that means.
How do we move the needle? I think nothing is going to change about human nature — you don't ever think that you're the bad guy of your own story. It's really uncomfortable to admit that you have biases and that you have assumptions and that they're not great.
It was uncomfortable for me. I'm a woman and I'm disadvantaged there, but I'm also white. Also, I wasn't born in completely desolate poverty, so I had a leg up there too. I have to admit that, and it’s not comfortable.
What's it going to take for the men that are really fighting the notion of sexism and really don't want to admit that it exists? It's going to take some self-introspection: “Why do I feel so defensive about this? Why do I take something that a woman says and automatically come at it with an attitude of skepticism and distrust?”
It's going to take people willing to take criticism, people willing to admit in our meritocracy-obsessed country that they had some advantages that had nothing to do with merit. Perhaps they say, hey, maybe I don't have a nice condo and six-figure job SOLELY because I pulled myself up by my bootstraps as a completely self-made man. Maybe I stop pretending that I was born in a vacuum and that no one has ever helped me whatsoever, not even through federally subsidized health care or education or the roads that get me to my job.
People have to admit, yeah, maybe I had a leg up. Maybe I was born on third base. Maybe I didn't 100 percent do everything myself by my own blood, sweat, and tears. And maybe life isn't fair. I think that scares people.
I think it scares people that a roll of the dice, as simple as you being born a man or a woman or rich or poor or black or white, can affect your quality of life and how far you reach in America. It's not supposed to be like that here, but it is like that.
When you're told that this kind of discrimination exists or misogyny is real, the first instinct is to get defensive about. As a man or as a white person, you don't want to think of yourself as the bad guy. You think, “Oh, sexism is a bad thing and I am not a bad person, so therefore I cannot do sexism.”
I know this because you've told me and called me out on things. In your article, you mentioned that a lot of times I interrupt you. I took that to heart. I don't know that there was a sexist bias to this, but I don't know that there wasn't. Even if there wasn't, I just respect you as a person and I don't want to interrupt you, because that upsets you.
But it's way easier to deny the problem exists than to admit that maybe you contribute to the problem. It's uncomfortable. It made me feel bad when you told me that. My first response is to do a defensive sort of, “Well, I'm not like that,” when I should be doing an introspective, “Am I like that?”
I know we're on Vox, but to put this in BuzzFeed terms, only things ’90s kids would understand, men want to be like Shaggy and say, "It wasn't me," when you should be like Steve Urkel and say, "Did I do that?"
One email that makes us think we made a difference by sharing our story
I got one really great response. A man emailed me. He took the time to find my email address and wrote me this thing, saying Hey, I read your story. I've got a 12-year-old daughter and a wife in a male-dominated field. And my wife has been very upfront about the discrimination she faced, and I've been supportive of her the best that I can. And I've been supportive of my daughter as much as I can.
The other day, my daughter comes home and she's been assigned to a group math project with two other little boys. The boys didn't understand the math involved, so my daughter was trying to explain it to them. She told me one of the boys would listen to her but the other one just wouldn't. He didn't want to listen, didn't believe anything she said, didn't want to take it from her.
She said, “Daddy, I think it's because I'm a girl. I think he doesn't want to listen to me because I'm a girl.”
He said, “Oh, you can't assume it's that. You have to look at every other single possibility before you assume it's because you're a girl. You can’t fall back on that as an excuse. You can't think of yourself as a victim or you'll never succeed in life.”
Here's a dad trying to have a teachable moment. He’s not trying to bully his daughter. He's not a CEO trying to bully someone out of the boardroom. This was a father trying to help his daughter understand the way the world works.
He wrote, “I read your story and I have come to the realization that my message was a very dangerous and ignorant one. It is my job to open my eyes and be more empathetic to the plight of others, especially in my own household. Thank you for helping me understand it in a way that I never understood it before.”
I was ready to cry. I said, “Thank you so much for writing to me. And if your daughter ever magically becomes a blogger and wants a mentor, call me.”
So that is kind of as clear as it gets. These aren't always bad people who know they're being bad and just hate women. Sometimes it's just dads trying to be good dads who can't see what they can't see.
Nicole Hallberg is a freelance blogger and copywriter who writes for money and dismantles the patriarchy for free. She has a portfolio here and a teeny little crafting blog here, of all things. Tweet her at @nickyknacks for a good time.