When Australian entrepreneur Andrea Myles doctored her LinkedIn profile— swapping out one letter in her first name, replacing her real photo with a stock image of grey-haired executive, and changing her pronouns from female to male—she could immediately feel her “stock going up,” she says.
“This Andrew bloke seemed to be doing pretty alright, being bilingual and having 15 years experience in China,” Myles writes in an account of her experiment for Mumbrella, an Australian site covering media and marketing.
Myles, the CEO of China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP), which brings together young adults for short “incubator” summits, spent almost one month playing a male CEO on the jobs site, a trial she launched one day after feeling fed up with random men who sent her inappropriate InMail messages.
“I felt mad, and cornered in my own inbox. That’s where 99% of the sexual harassment on LinkedIn I’ve experienced takes place,” she explains. “In the corners where no one else can see, where the guy’s boss and colleagues can’t view their comments.”
When Myles made herself appear to be male, the creepy messages—a common problem for many women on LinkedIn—ceased, but that wasn’t the only benefit. “Andrew” received “micro-affections,” the opposite of the “micro-aggressions” endured by women, people of color and other minorities, both in the workplace and on social media.
For instance, people asked her where she worked, not whom she worked for. Strangers stopped challenging her views on China. LinkedIn’s algorithm even seem to respond, she adds. Its invisible hand introduced her to more people in positions of seniority, finding powerful people who deserved to meet this guy:
It was a subtly different world, even though Myles hadn’t changed anything about her speciality, her vocabulary, or the types of posts she shared. When posting as Andrew “about gender equality, I noticed the general lack of men jumping on the thread to exclaim ‘men too’, and I got a LOT of kudos,” Myles writes.
Andrew’s world wasn’t all roses and virtual red carpets. Myles is a millennial, and she noticed that her voice felt out of place when Andrew, who appeared as a 55-year-old, joined conversations about innovation. She also felt “delegitimized” discussing diversity while posing as as a middle-aged white man.
Still, her experience echoes that of others who have learned through living it that men have it better in the workplace. Last year, for example, two women co-founders in the US invented a third co-founder, named Keith, to make their jobs easier.
The women, Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer, had launched Witchsy, an e-commerce company selling artwork and crafts by curated independent artists. They found they needed to invent a dude named Keith to deal with outside vendors and a few male artists with less friction. As Dwyer explained to Quartz: “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 online mirrors attitudes that taint gender relations in real life. It’s even present on office tools like Slack, a team-messaging app. Now, AI-enabled assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, are being introduced to workplaces, where their female names and voices will probably only underscore biases about women’s roles and competencies.
In her Mumbrella essay, Myles suggests that LinkedIn might have more tools available to protect women from inappropriate messages, and they should put them to use.
For its part, LinkedIn told Quartz At Work that it urges members to report any inappropriate messages, which are investigated.”We have multiple tools and processes in place to flag and stop any harassment we see,” Linked said in a statement. “We are also investing in ways to improve detection of these unacceptable behaviors and for members to tell us when things aren’t right.”
Regarding the possibility that its algorithm had selected more senior potential connections for Andrew, the company’s response suggests that it’s possible, but not because of he was a man. “Our ‘People You May Know’ matching algorithm does not include gender as a signal and does not use any explicit or inferred gender information,” a spokesperson wrote. “Our algorithms do take many other factors into account including the activity of an individual member and of other members in response, which could have contributed to what [Myles] experienced.”
Myles encouraged her readers to try switching genders online, as she did, to get a first-hand taste of how assumptions change. (“It’s almost as if [gender] is a social construct,” she writes, sarcastically.)
Just the act of ignoring digital-culture norms might be liberating, according to Myles, who recalls, “On a social media platform where people meticulously tend to their ‘personal brand’, cultivating their online presence like a precious bonsai, disrupting it and receiving applause emojis felt awesome and rebellious.”