Lots of women have had the nagging feeling at some point in their careers that if they were men, certain situations would've panned out more in their favor. But men may not always think about how they'd be treated in the workplace if they were women. Martin R. Schneider was forced to think about this, though, when people literally thought he was female.
Schneider's coworker Nicole was taking longer than he did on tasks that involved communicating with clients, which he chalked up to his higher level of experience. Then, he noticed one of his clients acting unusually difficult. "He is just being IMPOSSIBLE. Rude, dismissive, ignoring my questions," he recounted. "Telling me his methods were the industry standards (they weren't) and I couldn't understand the terms he used (I could)."
Then, he realized why he might've been treated differently from usual: His email signature said "Nicole," since they shared an inbox and she was handling the project before. Once he revealed who he was, he was met with "positive reception, thanking me for suggestions, responds promptly, saying 'great questions!' Became a model client."
To test his suspicion that this had to do with gender, he and Nicole both started signing emails with each other's names. "Folks. It fucking sucked," he wrote. "I was in hell. Everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single."
Nicole, on the other hand, was doing great — and getting things done much more quickly. "I realized the reason she took longer is because she had to convince clients to respect her," he realized. "By the time she could get clients to accept that she knew what she was doing, I could get halfway through another client." After that, he was less critical of her.
While this was an informal experiment, there have been actual experiments showing that something as simple as the gender of someone's name can affect their reception in the workplace.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people were more likely to offer a lab manager position to a fictional person named John than one named Jennifer with the same exact application. They also offered "John" a higher salary and more mentoring. And one National Bureau of Economic Research study found that age affected fictional job applicants' chances of getting interviews only if the applications had female names.
This may come as no surprise to women, but as Schneider's story shows, it's important for men to be aware of it, too. Otherwise, they could end up penalizing their female coworkers for something totally outside their control.