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A “Mann” For All Seasons: Foiling Tech Sexism with a Fake Male

A “Mann” For All Seasons: Foiling Tech Sexism with a Fake Male

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As a woman in the technical field of computing (and having transitioned from a long career in the technical field of chemistry), I’ve come up against many insidious examples of sexism in my time. Oh, how often have I wanted to give the perpetrators their comeuppance — but been unable to without blowback! So I applaud in vicarious glee the ingenious solution a pair of L.A. artists cooked up.

Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer co-founded the online bizarre-art marketplace Witchsy. When developing the platform, they started detecting condescension and disrespect in emails from outside developers and designers, who were often male. Gazin and Dwyer had an inkling that these men were addressing them this way because they were young women jumping into a tech endeavor. So they invented a third, fictional cofounder, a man named (get this) “Keith Mann,” and started corresponding with troublesome contacts as him.

“‘It was like night and day,’ says Dwyer. ‘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.’

Dwyer and Gazin continued to deploy Keith regularly when interacting with outsiders and found that the change in tone wasn’t just an anomaly. In exchange after exchange, the perceived involvement of a man seemed to have an effect on people’s assumptions about Witchsy and colored how they interacted with the budding business. One developer in particular seemed to show more deference to Keith than he did to Dwyer or Gazin, right down to the basics of human interaction.

‘Whenever he spoke to Keith, he always addressed Keith by name,’ says Gazin. ‘Whenever he spoke to us, he never used our names.’”

There’s an awful lot of light being shined on sexism in tech industries these days. What Dwyer and Gazin have contributed to this conversation is concrete evidence of how ridiculous the sexist impulse is: all it took to get their correspondents to wise up was a man’s signature at the bottom of an email. Hopefully, their evidence will join the massed amount of other undeniable proof of the sneakiness of sexism, and help turn the tide. Until then, Dwyer and Gazin have said they have retired Keith — but still envision having to resort to him again.