Episode 113: What's in a Name

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, when your name makes people confused about your gender…until you enlighten them…

“The point was, you’re not going to be taken seriously if you’ve just outed yourself as a Miss. You now look kind of insignificant. That’s what I got from it.”

And what it’s like when a man swaps names with a female colleague for a week…

I had no authority, essentially. Prior to this I had an assumed authority, people seemed to think I was capable of the job they had paid me to do and I guess I’d taken that for granted, because when I was working as Nicole that was often not the case.”

But don’t expect everyone to believe you…

“We just said hey, guess what, we did an experiment and fun fact, our clients treat me like crap, on the whole. And he was just immediately like, you can’t prove that, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

And just a heads up, you will hear the occasional swear word later in this episode. So in the unlikely even you’re listening to this with kids, you might want to put your headphones on.

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When I was a child growing up in London I couldn’t stand my first name. I didn’t love my last name either but it was Ashley that really bothered me. Because at least in those days, in the UK, Ashley was a boy’s name – and people often reminded me of that. My mother was American and she’d thought of Ashley as more of a feminine name, which it usually IS in the US. But that was no consolation to me at my school, surrounded by Victorias and Lucys and Natashas. 

So I really got into this piece I read in the Financial Times recently about ambiguous names. Alev Scott was the author. She lives in London. She’s a writer and commentator on Turkey and everything that’s happening there – which these days is quite a lot. She’s half Turkish and she began her career as a journalist there, but came back to the UK when the Turkish government became increasingly repressive.  

Her name – Alev – means ‘flame’ in Turkish. Her Turkish mother chose the name. But like a lot of kids whose first names sound ‘foreign’ in the country they live in, Alev says people always struggled to pronounce it; none of her schoolmates had much interest in her Turkish half. For years she just wanted to be called Emma.

But it wasn’t until she began working that her name took on another dimension…people who hadn’t met her assumed she was a man.

“I started to encounter it in my professional life…it’s when I started working as a journalist. I used to live in Turkey, it’s ironic that in a very patriarchal country like Turkey everyone knew I was a woman because they were familiar with the name, there were other problems associated with being a female journalist in Turkey but they weren’t connected to being confused for a man. Whereas in the west people didn’t know I was a woman and I had to tell them somehow and had to deal with the knowledge…they might think of me differently, or they might…it’s odd second guessing what people think of you when they think you’re a man. It’s hard to know and it’s hard to ask them so a lot of times I’ve guessed about a slight shift in tone, there’s all sorts of unknowns…and that’s one of the frustrating but also quite interesting things about my name.”

And I had to admit that I was one of those people who, looking at her name in print, assumed she was male. I read a piece of hers in the Financial Times several months ago, and only when she wrote that piece ambiguous names did I realize my mistake.

AM-T: “…because I was one of the people who fell into that trap of just assuming you were male when the name wasn’t obviously female.”

“Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it as well, it’s part of how we’re formed as a society – people assume we’re male unless told otherwise. And that’s interesting and also worrying. It’s funny, I sort of know people assume I’m a man unless I tell them otherwise but I haven’t developed a policy of dealing with that. If people specifically address me as Mr. Scott or make some reference by which I know they think I’m a man, then I’ll try and put them right but you can’t go around in life sort of shouting about being a woman just in case people assume you’re a man, it’s not something that I feel you can work into your public persona.” 

So she lives with it, correcting people when she feels she needs to.

Just as I do when I get emails or letters addressed to Mr. Milne-Tyte.

I hadn’t thought that much about titles, though, until Alev brought them up.

“I do often consider what would happen if we just got rid of titles, because I think maybe they’re antiquated at this point. I have a lot of issues with titles in fact.”

AM-T: “You mean titles such as Mr, Ms, Miss?”

“Yes, exactly. I don’t see what’s wrong with just using people’s first names. It doesn’t get rid of the problem of assuming a person’s gender…I personally have a real distaste for Ms. I think it’s really ugly and I think it symbolizes the fact there has to be this awkward compromise for women that doesn’t exist for men, because all they have is Mr., setting aside Doctor and Professor so on which applies to both sexes, thank goodness. Ms was probably concocted by someone with their heart in the right place for a good reason, but I still think it’s a really ugly compromise – why should there be a Ms, why should there be a Mrs. and a Miss? Why should women have to categorize themselves and be classified, and why do all these problems occur when there’s only one title for people of the male gender? I just think it’s weird.”

She’d rather not be categorized by her marital status at all…but since people often assume she’s a man, she sometimes uses a title to indicate her gender.  

A while ago, in her role as a Turkey analyst, she was introduced to a group email list of experts on the Gulf states. Mostly she was a lurker. But at one point she says the discussion veered towards Turkey and its president.

“I just felt all the contributors to this particular discussion, it was about President Erdogan’s support for Syrian rebels, I just thought none of them were quite getting the point, they weren’t that well informed. It was generally a high caliber of discussion, anyway, I decided to chip in. In the months I was in the group everyone was male; apparently there were other women, but I never heard from them. I chipped in and in one of the replies they were referring to ‘Mr. Scott’s comments,’ and I thought, OK, this is quite a serious, academic, male heavy group, I’m not going to make a big song and dance about being a woman but I want to put them right. Because it’s awkward, if you don’t say anything it’s almost like you’re being dishonest in a strange way. So I replied and signed off, in brackets, Miss Alev Scott.”

And she thought little more of it.

But someone else did. Soon after she’d sent that email the man who had introduced her to the group – she describes him as an Iran expert, quite old school…

“He said it’s none of my business, but…why did you advertise the fact you’re not married by using Miss? It’s not common among the list of impressive women who contribute to this group. 

And I just I thought oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening and I have to explain myself. And I explained I thought ‘Ms’ is ugly and that people thought I was a man, and I just wanted to correct them. And he said, oh yes, but you know it’s not common among the women who contribute to this group, they’re usually assumed to be senior and professionally important women. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it. But the point was, you’re not going to be taken seriously if you’ve just outed yourself as a Miss, you’re not a professor and you now look kind of insignificant. That’s what I got from it. And sure enough, it did seem to be that people didn’t respond nearly as enthusiastically after I sent the clarification of who I was.” 

And she says you know, maybe it was just that the discussion was moving on anyway. But she continued to have this niggling feeling that revealing her gender and marital status had demeaned her in the eyes of others…

“It just clarified for me what having a name like mine can lead to and the explanations that can lead to, and the disillusionment, I don’t know what was going through people’s minds, probably just surprise, but I think people have an unconscious bias whether they know it or not.”

Hearing her talk about this took me back to my interviews for the last show on being overweight at work – and how it can be so hard to tell whether someone’s judging you on that one thing. You have this feeling, but you can’t be sure. And you can hear Alev second guessing herself on this…did those other commentators think less of her views now they knew she was a woman?

“I feel like as women we’re more attuned to noticing that shift in tone when someone notices we’re a woman, I might be completely wrong here, and it would be really interesting to talk to a man often assumed to be a woman and see if they’re aware of that shift in tone…whether there is one, what it feels like, whether it feels positive, negative, whatever, I would be genuinely interested to talk to a man about that.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do after the break.

Earlier this year a story blew up online thanks to a series of tweets by a writer called Martin Schneider. He tweeted about an experiment he’d done a few years before with a colleague of his, Nicole Hallberg. An experiment where he suddenly found out what it was like to be a woman at work, and she got a taste of what it’s like to be a man.

A couple of things you should know: Martin and Nicole worked for a startup where all their interaction with clients was in writing.

The company they worked for was a resume-writing and editing service. The job was based in Philadelphia. They worked out of their boss’s apartment. Everyone was in their mid-twenties.

I asked Nicole to start by talking a bit about what the job involved…

As technical writers we’d go through a rigorous editing process and go through several drafts with each of our clients to get the answers right, we’d ask more questions, fill in more details, edit, edit, edit as we go, till we came up with finished product. Sometimes it took 4-6 weeks. So we would work in depth with individual clients and get to know them pretty well."

Martin: “Very rarely would we get on the phone with someone unless there was an actual problem, so for the most part it was just a lot of email so they wouldn’t have a way to see our faces or hear our voices or determine what our gender was.”

That’s Martin, or Marty as he’s known.

AM-T: “But Nicole, you’ve written about this, you were made quite conscious of your gender in this job before you and Marty did this experiment, right?”

Nicole: “Oh yeah, 48 hours after I was hired I found out which way the wind was blowing.

Our boss, very shortly after I was hired, he was our age, it was a very small company, there were only 4 of us, but he let me know that I should be proud because he wasn’t considering hiring any females, and I had made the cut out of hundreds of applicants, and I’d just impressed him so much with my writing samples and the practical interview we did that he decided to go ahead and hire a female anyway, because he said they’d always had fun at the office, and he didn’t want that to change. So sorry if I made working there too miserable, Marty…I am a joyless, humorless female.”

 Marty: “He also said something about me, remember?”

 “Oh yes, so Marty wasn’t moving for another few weeks and I said, what was Marty like, and our boss said, ‘oh, you know, he’s a good writer but he gets pretty emotional, he’s kind of a girl that way.’ And it’s like, did you really just say this to me, is this some kind of elaborate prank? But no, he was dead serious.”

She took a deep breath and plunged into the job. But with a boss who felt ‘females’ weren’t quite up to par, she felt she had to work extra hard to establish her competence – and she felt kind of the same way with the clients. Most of them were men, usually in the STEM field.

“I knew it was harder for a woman to be taken seriously and be seen as an expert, so I dotted my Is and crossed my Ts on every interaction. Made it very clear I knew about their industries, knew what I was talking about, name dropped different systems just so they knew I’d heard of them, things like that. What happened was Marty one day was complaining about one of our clients, saying this guy is being really unreasonable, I don’t know what his issue is, he’s being a condescending jerk really. And Marty noticed he had accidentally had his email signature set to my name. We used a shared inbox and chose from a drop-down menu to sign all of our email. So this guy wasn’t being rude to Marty he was being rude to me.”

Again, Marty had accidentally been signing all his emails to this client with Nicole’s name. So he went back into the correspondence, choosing his own name from the pull-down menu – didn’t let on about the mistake, just said to the client, hi, I’m Martin, I’ll be taking over this edit of your resume.

Nicole: “So all of a sudden this guy thinking he’s working with someone new becomes as sweet as could be…just oh, thank you for asking, that’s a really smart question, and all of a suddenly Marty knew what he was doing when Nicole clearly did not. When really nothing changed.

He asked, does this happen to you? I said, ‘Oh, only every day.’ So I said if you want to see what it’s like, let’s switch: all the incoming clients, I’ll be you, you be me, and see how differently they treat you.”

AM-T: “Oh…so Marty tell me from your perspective, what did that feel like?” 

Marty: “Nicole just told my half of the story, man…”

AM-T: “So unfair!”

Nicole: “Welcome to my world!”

Marty: “OK, this is normally the part where we switch to you. OK, working as Nicole was difficult in ways I found hard to describe. Suddenly I had to do a lot more, I got a lot more pushback, questions I previously thought were just basic things, first round questions, suddenly people were asking, well why would you ask this? Or they were saying, ‘I guess this would be impressive if you didn’t know the industry.’ Little condescending barbs…not all the clients obviously, but there was a noted increase in my workload. It took me longer to work with clients, and I was able to bluff a lot less. Prior to this I was able to fake it till I made it, but this time I was not able to do that… I had to do a lot more research because I’d get called on it a lot more. I had no authority, essentially. Prior to this I had an assumed authority, people seemed to think I was capable of the job they had paid me to do and I guess I’d taken that for granted because when I was working as Nicole that was often not the case, I had fewer opportunities to assert my authority no matter how made up it might have been, during that time period.”

And remember what Alev was talking about earlier, that change in tone she detected in people’s responses when they realized she was a woman? Well, Marty experienced that when people thought he was a woman…

Martin: “That’s one of the issues we’ve had, it’s a tone, right, how do you prove a shift in tone? It’s one of those things, you feel like you’re being talked down to. We all feel like we know what it’s like to be talked down to…even if you can’t point out, hey you’re doing it, especially not in text…so there were a few hons, some sweeties…”

Nicole: “I got emojis, did you get emojis?”

M: “I got no emojis.”

N: “I got smiley faces all the time, some winky faces.”

M: “Oh yeah, now you mention it, I think there were a couple of winky faces…maybe someone was trying to flirt with me, I don’t know. I don’t think so but I’m not gonna rule it out.”

AM-T: “So Nicole, what was it like for you that week? What was it like when you were apparently Martin?”

Nicole: “I had such a great time, I really did. I told you I used to spend enormous time and care crafting every one of my correspondences with my clients to project an aura of professionalism, and being an expert, but I noticed when I edited some of the guys’ resumes, when I saw Martin and our other coworker…I noticed that when I checked some of their resumes, the way they wrote questions and comments -- not speaking in complete sentences, no capitalization, typos, things like that…I was like, I double check all my comments to make sure they’re perfect, because as soon as I make a typo they’ll be like, ‘oh, this broad doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ So I was like, I wonder if I can get away with writing like that and if there will be a backlash. And I did, and there wasn’t, and it was awesome. And I was like, oh, cool, men don’t have to write in complete sentences – good to know.”

Marty: “Which brings us to the underlying premise of this story, which is one of the big complaints around our office, quote unquote, was our boss though Nicole took too long with each individual client. Took longer to get from first draft to final draft. And even though I didn’t see it as an issue he’d get on me for it and I’d have to get on her for it and it made everyone miserable. And that was the premise behind this whole thing – and suddenly I completely understood what it is that takes longer for her, is in the time I would normally be halfway done with a client I was just by that point, as Nicole, convincing them I knew what I was doing. So I realized oh, there’s a reason why on average it takes her longer…there’s a longer adaptation period, I suppose, and you have to spend more time being way more careful than I did when I was Martin.”

They did the experiment during a week when their boss was out of town. Some time after that, they decided to tell him about it. They were all at an event outside the office.

His reaction?

Nicole: “Immediate, I mean like immediate dismissal. Before we’d gotten through telling him all about it, he waved his hand. He said, ‘there could be a million reasons they treated you guys differently, there’s no way for you to know.’ And I remember being so angry, so frustrated, I remember being like, what the fuck are you talking about? What million reasons could there be that all of a sudden they think I’m smarter because my name is Marty? Like what are those million reasons? What I couldn’t understand most of all was why, what reason did he have, it’s not like I was asking for more money, or accommodations, or more time, we didn’t frame it that way at all. We just said hey, guess what, we did an experiment and fun fact, our clients treat me like crap, on the whole. And he was just like, you can’t prove that, and you don’t know what you’re talking about and that’s not true. And I thought, what skin do you have in this game? How does it benefit you to deny sexism has ever existed. But then I remember all the terrible sexist comments he said to me while I was there and had continued to make…things often said out of ignorance more than malice.”

Martin: “I mean small concession, but I said, ‘it’s fine if you don’t believe this, but I’m not going to get on her about speed any more, I’m not gonna fight that battle.’ And he conceded because I think at this point he was just tired of having the fight…but that’s the tiniest of concessions I can offer, to be honest.”

Neither of them works at the company any more. In fact it’s been sold twice, and the former boss isn’t there today either. But back then Nicole racked her brain for reasons why he would so strenuously deny that any difference in treatment could have been gender-related…and she finally came up with a hypothesis.

“This guy had created this company himself, he was 25 at the time, supported three employees…and that’s not nothing. And he was incredibly proud of the fact he was a self-made person…even though his parents were wealthy and had backed the company. But I think if he had acknowledged that, you know, I was disadvantaged at work, I think maybe he’d have to acknowledge that he was advantaged, and I don’t think he was willing to do that.

Marty: And I don’t think that’s special to him, I think it has to do with anyone who enjoys any position of privilege. People have asked me why is it so hard for people to admit they have some kind of advantage, visible or invisible – and I think it’s because if you admit that somebody else has to work harder, in your brain it puts down the work you had to do. Now I don’t believe I didn’t work hard, that I haven’t worked hard, but I’m fully willing to admit someone else has to work harder and maybe I have advantages.”

And when Marty went public with this story earlier this year, it went viral. Over weeks and months he and Nicole got thousands of responses from women saying they’d experienced similar things in their work lives.

Marty: “These were women at every age, every level, in every occupation, everybody from C-level execs to female butchers and mechanics…they all told stories. We had one, a husband who told the story of him and his wife, they were both 911 dispatchers, and they found police responded differently to the female voice than his voice when they were telling people to go and respond to emergency services. And that’s terrifying, people could die because of some weird latent bias.”

AM-T: “You mean people weren’t as quick to obey her commands, suggestions?

Marty: “Yes, that’s the story we were told, yeah."

Nicole: “Yeah, and I heard hundreds of stories like that too, some were heartbreaking, some were hilarious.…but this has a real cost for women, this is an interest piece for a lot of people but I think folks need to understand this is holding women back in their careers, it’s keeping them from achieving what they could achieve because they have to strive that much harder just to be taken seriously. It’s costing them positions, money, it’s costing us as a society.”

Marty: “Even this story is an example of why the story is necessary. I’m fully aware of the reason it caught fire is because it was told by me, a white man, I get this criticism a lot from far left feminists and it’s a valid criticism, people ask why did Marty need to experience this…why couldn’t he just believe Nicole to begin with, why do we need a white man to tell us this story? And I acknowledge and understand that criticism.

The closest I can say is that there’s a difference between understanding something exists, because I was never one of those people who denied sexism or that I had weird sexist biases and probably still do…but there’s a difference between understanding something exists and really experiencing it for yourself. It’s kind of like you don’t realize how many stairs there are in the city till you’re on crutches, it’s just something you don’t think about and something Ididn’t have to think about, and now that I do, I try to tell the story so other people can think about it.”

Nicole: “I don’t wanna sound like I’m too much just defending Marty because he’s my good friend, and he is my good friend, but when women say why didn’t Marty listen, why did he have to see it for himself? I say, look, he did. I told him and he believed me. But he didn’t fully understand the extent of what I was talking about it until he lived it, and I think that would be true of any human being whatsoever.”  

Marty: “I genuinely feel like if every woman stopped every single time something a little bit sexist happened to them and they stopped to tell a man about it, no one would get anything done.”

And speaking of men’s reactions, Marty says a lot of guys kind of squirm when they hear this stuff. It makes them uncomfortable. And that’s the good ones.

Marty: “I think for a lot of men it’s hard to hear stories like this because we all want to think of ourselves as good people, and we all agree sexism is inherently bad. I think a lot of men when they see stories like this they immediately get up in arms and use hashtags like #notall men – which means, not me, I don’t do this, where they should be asking just introspectively, do I do that? Is that me? And it’s a tough question to ask, most people don’t like the answer, I don’t like the answer when I did it.” 

AM-T: “It’s a recipe for defensiveness.”

Nicole: “Oh, yeah.

If you want to have a great easy week, I would recommend, change your avatar, change your picture.”

Marty: “Nicole, why don’t you explain why you don’t go by a pseudonym?”

Nicole: “Yes, it fascinates me that people on Twitter, often women, will say, Nicole needs to change her online name, her profile, to Nick – it’s amazing to me, I’m like, you know who I am because of a story about swapping names, you think this never occurred to me? I’ve thought about it and very consciously decided not to do it.

 So when I left that company I became a freelancer. And part of the reason was I wanted more control of who I worked with. I didn’t want to appease more sexist assholes for a paycheck, I didn’t want to do that, I wanted the freedom to fire a client if I wanted to and that’s been a beautiful thing, with its own set of challenges.

 But I wrestled for a long time with would I use a male pseudonym, and the answer I ultimately came up with was that if you have a problem with my writing coming from Nicole, then I don’t want you to have my writing, I don’t want to deal with you. I’m lucky I can afford to say that, some people can’t, some don’t care, they want to get ahead and not deal with the bullshit, and I will validate that 100 thousand percent for anyone who wants to do that. It was good enough for Emily Bronte, it’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with doing that. It was not the right choice for me. I was going to live or die or succeed or fail as Nicole, and that’s gonna have to be cool with the people I work with or else I’m not working with you.”

Nicole Hallberg. Thanks to her and Martin Schneider for telling their story on this show. You can also hear them on their own podcast, Not Eachother. And thanks to Alev Scott for sharing some of her experiences earlier. I’ll be posting more information on all three guests under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As most of you know, this is a one-woman show that takes many hours of work – and your support is much appreciated in keeping it going. To contribute just go to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com – but if you can’t afford to give, write a review on iTunes instead. Honestly, it all helps.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.