Sexism, in all its outdated glory, has still permeated nearly every industry in the market. From tech to politics, women are vastly underrepresented, underpaid, and generally undervalued within their male-dominated sectors. Tragically, solutions like diversity training and hiring initiatives have done little to spur change, typically eliciting more pushback than progress in small startups and large corporations alike. So what's the solution? Apparently, an imaginary cofounder goes a long way.
Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer were, in so many words, fed up with startup sexism. As the cofounders of Witchsy, an ecommerce marketplace for weird art, dark humor, and culturally aware content, they had received condescension and downright sexism on more than one occasion while trying to launch their business.
“When we were getting started, we were immediately faced with ‘Are you sure? Does this sound like a good idea?’,” said Dwyer to Fast Company. “I think because we’re young women, a lot of people looked at what we were doing like, ‘What a cute hobby!’ or ‘That’s a cute idea.'”
Nevertheless, they persisted with success. The marketplace, designed to be a less cluttered Etsy that pays creators 80 percent of the profits, allowed the women entrepreneurs to enjoy “a small profit.” They've even received a small investment from Rick & Morty co-creator Justin Roiland, with promises of creating Witchsy-exclusive merchandise for the incredibly popular animated series on Adult Swim.
However, as the profits rolled in, sexism still remained a pressing issue. While naysayers had cooled their tone, contractors working with the pair continued the pattern of condescension, often responding to requests after more than a few days and starting work emails with things like “Okay girls…” on a regular basis. One web developer even tried to delete everything because Gazin refused to go on a date with him. The two cofounders decided it was time to make a change.
Enter Keith Mann. As the third cofounder of the ecommerce marketplace, he was able to more efficiently communicate with contractors, providing the authority and unattractiveness required of a startup founder. His expansive experience in the business world, paired with his strong jaw and impressive hair line, made life at the ecommerce startup that much easier. Oh yeah, and he's not real.
That's right, Gazen and Dwyer made up a male cofounder, with a less-than-subtle name, to dodge the rampant sexism that had become so prevalent in their work environment. And, boy oh boy, did it work wonders.
“It was like night and day,” said 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.”
Rather than being infuriated by this trend, a response all of us would have more than understood, Gazen and Dwyer allowed it to inspire them. Not only were they even more driven to show the world that two women entrepreneurs can make it in business, they also enjoyed the opportunity to make fun of a couple of tech bros in the process.
“I think we could have gotten pretty bent out of shape about that,” Dwyer says. “Wow, are people really going to talk to this imaginary man with more respect than us? But we were like, you know what, this is clearly just part of this world that we’re in right now. We want this and want to make this happen.”
Read more about the importance of diversity in tech on TechCo
H/T Fast Company