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How a simple experiment exposed gender bias in the workplace

An email experiment is shedding light on the sexism many women face daily in the workplace.

Philadelphia-based writers Nicole Hallberg and Martin Schneider were working for a resume-writing service in 2014 when Schneider noticed a client being unusually rude and dismissive.

“He is being impossible,” Schneider wrote on Twitter this week, recounting the incident in honour of International Women’s Day. “Telling me his methods were the industry standards (they weren’t), and I couldn’t understand the terms he used (I could).”

That’s when Schneider realized he’d accidentally been signing off as his female co-worker from their shared email account. When he told Hallberg, she admitted she had sent out emails using his name in the past, in an attempt to get faster responses.

“I said we should do an experiment and see if it’s really different,” Hallberg told Citynews in an interview. “So, we did. And he was blown away by the results.”

“I was in hell,” tweeted Schneider about the experiment. “Everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single.”

Meanwhile, Hallberg was seeing a boost in productivity like never before.

“I realized the reason she took longer is (because) she had to convince clients to respect her,” Schneider reflected in his tweets.

“He was shocked,” says Hallberg, of her colleague’s reaction to the different ways they had been treated. “He said, ‘I had this invisible advantage I never knew about.’ ”

But it wasn’t shocking to her. This was just one way for Hallberg to show her male colleagues how women constantly deal with sexism at work.

“How often they interrupted and talked over me when we were all talking as a group. How often they ignored what I said. How often someone would suggest the same thing I had said, and suddenly it’s a great idea. He wasn’t cognizant of it.”

Hallberg says since her colleague’s tweets have gone viral, she’s been inundated with messages from women who have had similar experiences in the professional world. One woman, who goes by the name Charlie, messaged her about a time she was set to give a presentation to a group of businessmen.

“When she walked in the room and they realized Charlie was Charlotte, one of the men actually told her, ‘Sorry, but all of my expectations for this presentation have just gone out the window. It’s very clear they just sent the B-team.’ ”

Even with this seemingly obvious tale of gender bias, Hallberg says many online have been quick to question whether sexism was to blame, or if she was simply bad at her job. She says one of the most frustrating parts of dealing with sexism is constantly being asked to prove it. Her own boss dismissed the experience when the pair brought it to his attention.

“That’s what’s so insidious about workplace sexism,” says Hallberg. “How do you time stamp and carbon copy a microagression?”

Hallberg hopes sharing her story can encourage more men to speak up, and points to the way Schneider made changes to his behaviour after the experiment.

“He started using his voice to say, ‘Hey, I think Nicole had a good idea. Hey, I think Nicole was saying something’,” she recalls. “Recognize that your privilege is that you will automatically be listened to and automatically be taken seriously.”