Starting a business is pretty damn hard. But starting a business is especially hard if you’re a woman.
Just ask Kate Dwyer and Penelope Gazin, the LA-based co-founders of Witchsy, an online marketplace for what they call “cool, unusual and weird” art (think Etsy with a darker edge, and perhaps a more deliberate curation and selection of artists). Like any entrepreneurs, the duo faced the standard challenges that come with building a company, such as budgeting and getting up-to-speed on the technical and business skills required for successful growth. But their venture was also hindered by a whole lot of sexism.
“When we were getting started, we were immediately faced with ‘Are you sure? Does this sound like a good idea?’” Dwyer told 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,'” she explained.
Dwyer’s and Gazin’s experience is not unique to female founders, who, in 2016, received just 2.19 percent of all venture capital funding in the U.S. A study published in Harvard Business Review this past June investigates why female founders fare so poorly compared to their male counterparts; it revealed that when speaking to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists “tended to ask men questions about the potential for gains and women about the potential for losses. We found evidence of this bias with both male and female VCs.”
The women of Witchsy can certainly relate — and in some cases, the sexism they faced was anything but subtle. Dwyer told Fast Company that at one point, after she declined going on a date with a web developer she and Gazin had hired, he shadily attempted to delete the work he’d done for them. She adds that she and Gazin were continually met with condescending emails and general disrespect from the men with whom they were collaborating.
Needless to say, while Witchsy now seems to be gaining traction, Dwyer and Gazin had to employ some pretty crafty strategies to get their idea off the ground. Of course, every entrepreneur has to be scrappy and clever — but Dwyer and Gazin devised a particularly noteworthy tactic: they added a third co-founder, Keith Mann, into the mix. They had Keith take the lead on communicating with their collaborators over email.
Why is this strategy so noteworthy? Because Keith doesn’t actually exist. Dwyer and Gazin simply created a fictional man to see whether signing emails with a male name would have an impact on the kinds of responses they were getting. And it did.
“It 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,” Dwyer told Fast Company. This behavior, she says, was not particular to just one or two people; it applied to numerous interactions they had with outsiders.
Dwyer and Gazin are not the first to experiment with this kind of strategy. This past April, a pair of coworkers — one male, one female — swapped email signatures and exposed harcore sexism that was quite similar to the biases Dwyer and Gazin encountered.
While Dwyer acknowledges that she and Gazin could have let themselves get discouraged by their experiment and call out the discrimination they faced as it was happening, they opted to do whatever they could to get their biz up and running.
Fast Company reports that the (real) founders have retired Keith for the time being, but they wouldn’t be surprised if they had to call on him again in the company’s future.