Martin Schneider didn’t know he was going to become a male champion of gender parity. Maybe he wouldn’t even describe himself that way now. But that’s what he’s become in a way. And it happened completely by accident. Back in March of this year, an article in The Independent described what happened this way:

His colleague, Nicole, was getting criticism from their boss for taking longer than he did on tasks that involved communicating with clients. As her supervisor Mr Schneider thought this was due to his higher level of experience, until one day he noticed one of his clients acting unusually difficult.

The client was rude, dismissive, condescending, and ignored Schneider’s questions.

Schneider couldn’t understand why this client was behaving this way until he realised that he had been accidentally signing all his emails with the name “Nicole” since they shared an inbox and she was handling the project before.

When he re-introduced himself to the client, the client did an about face. Suddenly the client started thank Schneider for his suggestions, responded promptly to questions, saying “great questions!” Surprised at the change in the client’s behaviour, he later asked Nicole if clients behaved badly towards her all the time. Mr. Schneider says her response was “‘I mean, not ALL the time … but yeah. A lot’.”

Switching gender

So they did an experiment: For two weeks they switched signatures on all client emails.

Here’s how Mr. Schneider describes the experience:

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 had the most productive week of her career. I realised the reason she took longer is because she had to convince clients to respect her. By the time she could get clients to accept that she knew what she was doing, I could get halfway through another client. I wasn’t any better at the job than she was, I just had this invisible advantage.

Discovering male privilege and confirmation bias

The invisible advantage Mr. Schneider discovered, what gender researchers call “male privilege”, results from unconscious bias and gender norms that are so normal, most people can’t see them. It’s like there’s a glass wall separating men and women. Most people aren’t aware of the glass wall because they stay on their side of it and look straight ahead. We rarely get a chance to step over to the other side. Women bump into it when they try to step into traditionally male roles and territory.

Schneider showed their boss the e-mails and told him that he was never critiquing Nicole’s speed with clients again. The boss wasn’t convinced (probably due to confirmation bias). He might have changed his mind if he had tried the experiment himself.

What makes this experiment so powerful is that no one was trying to persuade Mr. Schneider that he has an invisible advantage compared to women. He discovered it himself. And then he wanted to do something to help his colleague. All the training in the world could not achieve that kind of result.

Mr. Schneider’s experiment could be easily done in any workplace. Imagine what would happen if men and women in every organization traded e-mail signatures for a week. Are you ready to try it?

This blog post was first published as an article on LinkedIn on 1 December 2017.