Male and Female Co-Workers Switched Email Signatures, Faced Sexism

3-10-17 Misogyny
A photo illustration shows the entry describing the word "misogyny", in a 2nd edition copy of The Macquarie Concise Dictionary, the authority on the English language in Australia, on a coffee table in Sydney October 17, 2012. Tim Wimborne/Reuters

When Nicole Lee Hallberg finally got to the in-person interview for a résumé editing job—after three or four rigorous Skype interviews that included being watched as she did some on-the-spot editing—her future boss made a comment that astounded her. “I wasn’t actually considering hiring any females, but you did so well,” he said, that he decided to call her in for the next round. He eventually hired her, the first woman to join his four-person company. It wouldn’t be his last sexist offense. “He would say females this and females that,” Hallberg tells Newsweek. “Am I fucking antelope on the Discovery channel?”

She would soon learn that the boss was only a small part of the frustration. As Hallberg recounted in a Medium post and her friend and former colleague Martin R. Schneider explained in a series of tweets on Thursday, the company’s clients also treated Hallberg differently from her male co-workers. Schneider’s thread went viral on Thursday, garnering thousands of retweets and inspiring one reader to turn it into a Twitter “Moment.”

They were all doing intensive revisions of résumés for clients, many of whom worked in  science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields like computer information technology, but also included every kind of job from baristas to literal rocket scientists, a zookeeper who worked with elephants to someone who developed backend systems for adult novelty products. The interactions would take place entirely online; the editors never met with their clients face to face. Schneider and Hallberg worked out of their boss’s apartment in a swanky high-rise in Center City in Philadelphia. One other editor worked remotely from New York. Hallberg started one year after Marty in the same role with the same amount of experience but at a lower salary, and continued to get smaller raises than her colleague and friend, she says. When she was hired, he was bumped up and became her supervisor in name, though in practice they did the same work. She got used to staff meetings during which she was constantly interrupted, talked over or ignored, even by Schneider. “Marty he’s a cool guy,” she tells Newsweek. But “he did things that were dumb and sexist all the time.” With him though, “we were good enough friends that I could just light into him.” He took her words to heart and has started paying close attention to sexist behavior around him.

In addition to dealing with the culture at the “office,” Hallberg says she “struggled all the time,” when working with clients, who would often fight her. They “mansplained things all the time. I was doing thousands of these résumés, and people were trying to explain the simplest terms to me.” She remembers asking one “kid” she worked with, for example, whether he’d used any kind of source management in his previous work. Instead of answering her question, her client insisted on trying to define the term for her, even though it was clear from her inquiry she already knew. On other occasions, her clients would be argumentative or doubt whether she knew what she was doing. “I must have said out loud once a day, ‘Didn’t these people hire us?’” But “Marty just never really dealt with that.”

Both he and Hallberg, in her Medium story, recounted an experiment they did almost three years ago while working together at that company. Schneider had taken over working with a client from Hallberg. “So one day I'm emailing a client back-and-forth about his résumé and he is just being IMPOSSIBLE. Rude, dismissive, ignoring my questions,” he wrote on Twitter. “I was getting sick of his shit when I noticed something. Thanks to our shared inbox, I'd been signing all communications as ‘Nicole.’ It was Nicole he was being rude to, not me.”

Hallberg wasn’t surprised to hear about the correspondence and told Schneider it wasn’t too unusual. She admitted that she’d even used his email signature once or twice before. “You’re shitting me,” she remembers him saying. She assured him: “No, it works. Trust me.” So they decided to spend a week using each other’s email signatures to see what would happen. They “transferred” existing clients to work with a “new editor,” changing signatures on them when in fact they were continuing to email back and forth with the same person, and took up new clients using one another’s names.

“I had a great week; I’m not going to lie,” Hallberg says. “People were more receptive, taking me more seriously. They assumed knew what I was doing. I didn’t have to prove it to them.” She saw fewer suggestions and doubts. Meanwhile, Schneider wrote in his tweets that “I was in hell. Everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single.”

Hallberg thinks “it shocked him that it was such a clear cut and immediate change,” she says. “literally night and day with some of these people.”

The story is just one example, anecdotal evidence of sexism rather than scientific. But it attracted a slew of replies on Twitter from others who’d had similar experiences. One woman tweeted: “Your story of Nicole is me, I am Nicole. I'm the Boss of 300 men and I'm treated like I'm an idiot, every day.” Another said: “My life changed with initials. From STEM guys ignoring/criticizing emails, to bending over to help. Amazing.” A third shared that “my law partner and I have this experience. Often he has to give the same advice I just gave for it to ‘take.’”

Studies have shown that Hallberg and Schneider’s story is not an aberration. In one study looking at instructors for an online class, “students rated the male identity significantly higher than the female identity, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender, demonstrating gender bias.” Another study had science faculty rate applications randomly assigned male and female names for a lab manager position and found that “faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant.” Yet another found that when applications for tech jobs were stripped of identifying details, the percentage of women selected for interviews rose from five to 54 percent.

It has been “so cool to look and see the responses,” Hallberg says. “So many women have said, ‘Oh my god, thank you for sharing. I have one just like it.’ I don’t know any women who don’t,” she adds, while many of the men who responded were shocked to hear this happens. The overwhelming majority of responses have been positive and supportive, she says, but still some men have tried to find “non-sexist” reasons for the outcome of the experiment or doubting the veracity of the story.

“One thing I really would want to emphasize,” she says, is “that a lot of guys just don’t want to believe this is true and will make excuses and find justifications and reasons why this doesn’t exist,” she adds. Maybe they all need to spend a week responding to emails as “Nicole” before they say anything else.