It’s no secret that sexism is an epidemic in the tech industry, but the great lengths that some intrepid women entrepreneurs have to go to circumvent discrimination can surprise even the most jaded cultural critic.
In 2016, entrepreneurs Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer launched Witchsy, an online marketplace for alternative art that might be considered too edgy or explicit for the stringent community standards on more mainstream sites such as Etsy. But the road to success was difficult. To get Witchsy off the ground, Gazin and Dwyer needed contributions from designers and developers, many of whom were men who would often behave dismissively toward them and their project.
Some of this behavior was extremely overt, for example, one web developer they brought in early in the site’s development attempted to delete everything after Gazin declined to go on a date with him. Others expressed their disrespect in more subtle ways: passive aggressive email responses, failing to answer in a timely manner or being excessively unhelpful or condescending. In response to one of the founders’ requests, a developer started an email with the words “OK, girls…”
So Gazin and Dwyer brought in a new partner, Keith Mann, to field emails from more difficult contractors. He became an exceedingly helpful and valuable member of the team, but here’s the thing — Keith Mann doesn’t exist.
Keith Mann: Imaginary man
Keith Mann, a fictional co-founder who consisted only of a name and email signature made business so much easier for Dwyer and Gazin because of the respect that a male email signature seemed to inspire from their more difficult contractors.
When discussing the contrast, Dwyer told Fast Company, “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.”
Where Gazin and Dwyer received email messages addressed “OK, girls,” Mann was always addressed by name. For some people working with Witchsy, Mann’s “presence,” altered the way they perceived the company and legitimized the enterprise for them.
The widespread nature of sexism
The majority of college students and about half of all managers in the broader workforce are women, but notably, there are very few women involved in the world of tech startups. Only 16 percent of employers are women, and only 10 percent of founders of high-growth firms, startups that grow their workforce rapidly instead of fizzling out early, are female. Additionally, only 36 percent of all small businesses are owned by women.
Women entrepreneurs are less likely to receive financial backing from venture capitalists. Sadly, 65 percent of women working in tech have reported receiving unwanted sexual comments or physical touch from a superior.
And then you have the comments of high-profile programmers such as Justin Mateen, co-founder of Tinder, who stated that having a young, female co-founder “makes the company seem like a joke” and “devalues” it.
Witchsy has sold more than $200,000 in art as of this summer and has turned a modest profit for its founders. They even managed to secure a vote of confidence in the form of investment from Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland and are working on creating some Witchsy-exclusive merch. While they’re no Amazon, massive scale or fortune was never the goal for Gazin and Dwyer. The goal was always to offer a sustainable platform where artists could sell their work without threat of censorship, where their art could be taken seriously as is, without having to conform to the cutesy feminine vibe of mainstream art sites such as Etsy. And by hook or by crook, they are making it work.
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