What if the most valued employee at a company was a fake one? That was the case with startup retailer Witchsy, whose two female co-founders created a fake male co-founder to counter sexism in their field.
Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer have garnered attention recently for creating the fake male co-founder for their popular, offbeat store as they sought to establish their company. Specifically, they came up with avatar “Keith Mann,” who would communicate with outsiders via email.
“We made a joke about just bringing in a fictional character that would be us but would completely lay down the law, say exactly what we were dealing with and what we needed, and just kind of back us up all the time,” Dwyer told Forbes’ Vanessa McGrady.
Before Mann, Gazin and Dwyer had particular trouble in email exchanges with male collaborators, such as outside developers and graphic designers. The men were often short, didn’t respond to emails promptly, or were disrespectful. In response to one request, according to Fast Company, a developer started an email with the words “Okay, girls…”
After the creation of Keith Mann, though, things changed.
“It was like night and day,” Dwyer told Fast Company’s John Paul Titlow. “It would take me days to get a response, 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.”
What the Witchsy Example Shows
By creating Mann, Gazin and Dwyer offered a glimpse of gender bias in one industry. But you could easily zoom out and view it as an indicator of a much more pervasive issue in other fields and situations.
In the business, finance, retail and service industries, among many others, women often run up against pay disparities and mistreatment while just trying to do their jobs. In 2016, nearly a third of the charges handled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which enforces federal laws barring discrimination in the workplace — involved gender bias allegations in the workplace. (For certain types of lawsuits, but not Equal Pay Act suits, plaintiffs generally file charges with the EEOC before they can file a lawsuit.)
Christina J. Thomas, a labor and employment attorney in Morgan & Morgan’s Lexington, Kentucky, office, said Dwyer and Gazin offer up a novel way to approach the ever-present issue of gender bias in the workplace.
“The Witchsy example is significant, because it spotlights an issue that’s been happening in our culture for a long time – but with a fresh coat of paint,” Thomas says. “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Behind every man there’s a great woman?’ Well, the Witchsy partners put their own spin on it.”
Thomas has extensive experience trying cases involving discrimination, including cases under the Equal Pay Act, which President John F. Kennedy signed into law in 1963 to address gender disparities in compensation. More than 50 years later, women are still making only about 79 percent of what men do, according to the EEOC. The Witchsy example shows the less quantifiable side of gender bias: the institutional kind that takes a village to change.
“The real goal needs to be to establish and reinforce laws which guarantee fair working conditions and the right of redress to all employees, regardless of gender.”
The question of how to end gender bias in the workplace looms over circumstances like what Gazin and Dwyer have had to endure. However, Thomas says, it’s not that cut and dry.
“Ironically, eradicating gender bias at work shouldn’t be the end game,” she says. This, she explains, is because many people believe that in order to give someone a right, one must be taken away from someone else. “It’s human nature to want to guard your treasure.”
Instead, Thomas says, “The real goal needs to be to establish and reinforce laws which guarantee fair working conditions and the right of redress to all employees, regardless of gender.”
Society, she said, might achieve workplace equality by enacting some key measures:
- Protecting employees’ right to take time off when they are sick, or their parents or children are sick, or for the birth or adoption of a child;
- Making it illegal for employers to force workers to sign waivers of their constitutional right to a jury trial;
- Making sure people get due process before they’re fired;
- Strengthening employee benefit protections; and
- Educating workers on their right to unionize and be free from retaliation.
Fighting Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
After their initial experimentation, Gazin and Dwyer continued to use their fabricated co-founder regularly until they were about half-way done with their website. They found that Mann was consistently treated better than they were. One developer, according to the Fast Company article, would even refer to Keith by name, but never give Gazin and Dwyer the same respect.
Although discouraged by the lack of decency showed to them and the wealth of decency showed to their male avatar, Gazin and Dwyer didn’t let it interrupt their goal to build their business.
“... We were like, you know what, this is clearly just part of this world that we’re in right now,” they told Fast Company. “We want this and want to make this happen.”
By doing their own version of the “behind every man…” bit, Dwyer and Gazin have through levity put a spotlight once again on a pervasive issue in the workplace. Thomas laughed when she first heard of the Witchsy example — “Every great social movement needs a sense of humor,” she says — but she notes that there’s some serious work that our best and brightest CEOs, lawyers, and community leaders must do to bring equality to the workplace.
“We have to make it possible for all employees to hold greedy corporations accountable – in court, in public, in front of a jury,” Thomas says. “If we do these things, women will benefit immensely; as will the families and loved ones who count on them for financial and emotional support.”
If you’re faced with mistreatment in the workplace because of your gender, Thomas recommends doing three things: (1) Be brave; (2) Take notes; and (3) Contact a lawyer.
Morgan & Morgan has one of the only contingency-fee discrimination practices in the country — it’s not often a law firm will take a bias case without any upfront payment. If you’re facing discrimination at work, contact our attorneys today. Don't wait: Some discrimination claims are subject to statutory deadlines (otherwise known as "statutes of limitations").