STRAW MAN

Two women entrepreneurs invented a cofounder named “Keith” to be taken seriously. It worked

One year ago, Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer launched Witchsy, an online shop for quirky, sometimes raunchy, artwork—illustrations, pins, and fabric patches by artisans and craft makers. Their aesthetic has been described as “pleasantly disruptive,” the lovechild of Etsy and Pornhub. In fact, the site’s name was inspired by Etsy’s banning of witch spells, which they saw as censorship.

In its first year, Witchsy has managed to make a small profit, and made $200,000 in sales. The Los Angeles company has caught the attention of Vice and the fashion site Racked, which applauded the founders’ entrepreneurial and curatorial skills. Recently Dwyer and Gazin told Fast Company about a strategy the two developed to make working with collaborators more efficient.

Having noticed that the mostly male artists, developers, and designers they were working with took their sweet time to respond to requests and were often slightly rude and condescending in email— “They’d say things like ‘Listen, girls…,’” Dwyer tells Quartz—they decided to bring in a male co-founder named Keith Mann to make communication easier.

The thing is Keith didn’t exist, except in email.

To make Keith feel real, Gazin and Dwyer gave him a back story. He was a dude’s dude, they decided, the kind who played football in college. He was devoted to his wife of five years, and he couldn’t wait to be a dad. “He was just a really good guy,” says Gazin. “He doesn’t really understand Kate and I, but he’s been happy to help us with our project before we find husbands.”

For six months, Keith dealt with the associates who seemed to have little interest in working with women—all via email.

And everything changed. Pre-Keith, Dwyer explains, “it was very clear no one took us seriously and everybody thought we were just idiots.” When “Keith” contacted collaborators, Gazin says, “they’d be like ‘Okay, bro, yeah, let’s brainstorm!’”

The sexism they faced was subtle, Gazin notes. It wasn’t as if anyone said, “Hey, toots, let me speak to Keith.” But when she reached out, Dwyer also told Fast Company, “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.” Of course, Keith always had to cancel on conference calls at the last minute.

Last spring, the story of two colleagues at a resume writing service who noticed the same dynamic went viral. A man, Martin Schneider, unwittingly began using the signature of a woman co-worker, Nicole Pieri, in his correspondence, and he noticed that customers were subtly rude to him, frustrating him with their attitudes and haughtiness. When he went back to communicating as a man, the change in attitude was drastic.

It’s no big surprise that men have it better at work. Both explicit and implicit biases have long been obstacles for women who strive to have their work or importance respected. Shakespeare was aware of it, writing several plays featuring characters who swapped genders to gain access to male-only enclaves. Several women writers in history, including the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and, more recently, J.K. Rowling, have used pseudonyms to bypass assumptions about women’s intelligence and creativity.

What’s surprising isn’t that the tactic is still successful, but that it remains necessary in the 21st century. In era that touts gender equality, even school-age children are still absorbing warped messages about the sexes. A recent study published in the journal Science revealed that by the time most girls are six, they believe that only males can be geniuses.

At Witchsy, “Keith was integral to getting the site built,” says Dwyer. Once the company was launched, however, the women were able to let Keith take time off to be with his new baby. By then, they also felt more comfortable “being super direct in speaking, more like we would when we were Keith,” says Dwyer.

Playing the role allowed them to figure out how best to deal with business partners. “I think a lot of times as women, we’re always accommodating everyone else’s emotions first. In business, that’s not really possible and so we just kind of gave that up.”

It was also easier to be taken seriously when they had something—an operating site—to show people, they add. And now they’re working with a male coder who takes them seriously without thinking they are a man.

For now, Gazin and Dwyer say, Keith doesn’t have any plans to return to the company. But just in case it becomes necessary to fill his role, they’re interviewing a new guy. “Ted.”

home our picks popular latest obsessions search