Business development · 31 August 2017

Creating a fake male co-founder to counter startup sexism

Witchsy co-founders Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer | Image: Witchsy
Witchsy co-founders Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer | Image: Witchsy

From the tech bros of Silicon Valley to the allegations made at some of tech’s biggest names, gender continues to be visible among high-growth businesses across the US and Europe. Now, two female co-founders in the US have revealed the unique way they tackled startup sexism.

In growing Witchsy, an online art marketplace similar to the Etsy model, founders Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer observed an emerging pattern – graphic designers and developers were overwhelmingly male, and on realising they were dealing with a female-run startup, would be slow to respond to emails and take on condescending tones.

In an account relayed to Fast Company, the entrepreneurs revealed patronising email openers such as “okay, girls”, and told of one developer working for them who attempted to delete their site after he was declined a date with Gazin.

Enter Keith Mann – a make-believe third, male co-founder who would take on all correspondence with the outside tech community. The results were fairly immediate – “like night and day,” Dwyer noted.

“It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but could also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with,” Dwyer added, highlighting the extent of the contrast.

Keith Mann is the latest indication that high-growth tech sectors in the US and Europe have struggled to tread a different path to the business world of past generations. Concepts of tech bros and “brogrammers” have been used in the US to classify the kind of culture experienced by women in startup communities, and point towards the marginalisation of women in tech.

At the top, ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalinick resigned in June 2017 after a series of allegations of Uber’s workplace culture harbouring sexual harassment and discrimination. Some 20 employees also received marching orders.

More recently, Google was swift to act after its own engineer circulated his “anti-diversity” manifesto around the company.

With their pseudonym out in the open, Dwyer and Gazin remain focused on scaling Witchsy despite the cultural problems within the high-growth startup world.

“I think we could have gotten pretty bent out of shape about that,” Dwyer added. “Wow, are people really going to talk to this imaginary man with more respect than us? But we were like, you know what, this is clearly just part of this world that we’re in right now.”

Witchsy’s story might resonate with female startup founders in Britain, where access to funding remains a key barrier to scaling a company.

According to research from The Entrepreneurs Network lobby group, in 2016 male-led enterprises received 86 per cent of all venture capital (VC) startup investment, and 56 per cent of all backing from angel investors.

Crowdfunding platforms were also found to favour male-run startups over female entrepreneurs. In 2015, just eight per cent of fundraisers were women.

Annabel Denham, a director at The Entrepreneurs Network, said the findings revealed a “frustrating reality” for female startup founders.

“This is not just an economic discussion, though we know scale ups are vital to the UK economy – we want to see smart, savvy businesswomen getting the same opportunities as their male counterparts,” she said in a statement.

However, in 2016 London was cited as one of the top five cities in the world for female entrepreneurs starting out in business. The UK capital was seen as offering strong access to relevant markets and capital.

Find out why more women are making franchising their future

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is a reporter for Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and previously worked as a content editor in the ecommerce industry.

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