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Two Women Invented a Male Business Partner & It’s Sickening How Much It Helped Their Startup

Witchsy is an online community marketplace for all kinds of cool art, ranging from whimsical to raunchy to macabre to feminist. It’s sort of like a streamlined, edgier Etsy, or if Urban Outfitters actually paid the artists whose cute ideas they steal. Best of all–since we love supporting women-run companies–Witchsy was founded by two women. Well, two women and one imaginary man.

Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer launched the site a year ago, and since then have found a good amount of success connecting independent artists with audiences. But from the start, they were met with the sort of sexist resistance most women in business (and pretty much every field, and life in general) are all-too familiar with. From condescending emails (one especially mansplainy email opened with the words, “Okay, girls …”) to overt sexual harassment, Gazin and Dwyer grew so tired of the sexist roadblocks, they invented a third partner: Keith Mann.

Dwyer told Fast Company that immediately, their business correspondence “was like night and day. 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.”

That’s the sort of anecdote that so often gets dismissed by deniers as not being indicative of sexism, but rather just the difference between two people. Except, in this case, they’re literally the same person. The only difference is the name. No one can claim that Keith communicates better, is better at his job, or is in any way worthy of this preferential treatment.

It’s these individual interactions, rooted far more often in invisible bias than loud, deliberate misogyny, that create a wide barrier between women and the sort of professional success they strive for. Little things, like the web developer who Gazin says just, for whatever reason (we know the reason), “always addressed Keith by name. Whenever he spoke to us, he never used our names.” That may seem like a small detail, but it represents an internalized bias that has huge ramifications for women in male-dominated industries.

Gazin and Dwyer’s story is just one example of the invisible misogyny women face in business every day, the kind that can always point to the guy who “deserved” the promotion, who was “better for the job,” or just more personable/authoritative/communicative/whatever, without ever facing up to the fact the maleness, like whiteness, is perceived as an innate, unearned advantage.

Remember the story from earlier this year about the male and female coworkers who swapped names for a few weeks? They signed emails with the other’s names, and Martin R. Schneider, the man in this scenario was blown away by the difference in treatment he thought was baseline. Yet even when they took their findings to their boss, he dismissed it, saying “There are a thousand reasons why the clients could have reacted differently that way. It could be the work, the performance… you have no way of knowing.”

We do, though. We know why web developers address Keith by name but ask Gazin and Dwyer on dates. Just like we know why people with stereotypically “black” names find their job resumes at the tops of far fewer piles than those with “white” names, even when the resumes themselves are identical. Just because you can’t see this infuriating prejudice bullcrap, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Gazin and Dwyer entered into the startup world with a great idea but admittedly little tech knowledge. That combination gets women those condescending “Okay, girls …” emails, but for Keith, that’s ambition! Branch out, try something new! Gazin says “it was very clear no one took us seriously and everybody thought we were just idiots. When ‘Keith’ contacted collaborators, they’d be like ‘Okay, bro, yeah, let’s brainstorm!”

Dwyer says they’re not getting “bent out of shape” over their Keith Mann discoveries. And while I think rage would be a perfectly acceptable response, I’m just glad they’re sharing their story. As she says, “this is clearly just part of this world that we’re in right now.” No one can fault them for a little innocent deception that both shines a light on invisible prejudices and helped them launch an awesome company.

(via Fast Company, featured image: Shutterstock)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.