I was scrolling through my Twitter feed late the other night when I stumbled on this Tweet from Philly writer, movie and TV critic and podcaster Martin Schneider:
You can read the entire thread here, but in a nutshell, Schneider and his former co-worker and current best friend Nicole Hallberg inadvertently switched names at work — they shared an Inbox; Schneider didn’t realize he was interacting with clients using Nicole’s email signature and wondered why previously easygoing clients suddenly … weren’t. After realizing the mistake, Schneider was horrified to realize that what he’d experienced was just another day on the job for Hallberg. He was stunned; she was used to it. And then, Hallberg and Schneider decided to do a social experiment. For two weeks, Schneider would use Hallberg’s signature and she would use his. Lo and behold, Hallberg’s job suddenly got a zillion times easier. Schneider’s didn’t. Because people interacted with Hallberg as though she was male. She writes up the story here, in a Medium post.
This is bias in action. Unconscious or not, this is what women battle every day we show up to do our jobs. And if you think that’s bad, imagine — as many others pointed out on Twitter, in response to Schneider’s thread — if your name “reads” as Black, Hispanic/Latina, Native American, Indian, Asian … yeah.
There’s a long history behind how names trigger our unconscious biases that you can start to explore by checking out this article and this blog post, but there’s another point I want to make about this story in its aftermath.
Reading follow-up commentary on the story, I’m struck that many of the headlines and articles are slamming Schneider for finally realizing sexism exists in the workplace. Fair enough, this absolutely should be pretty common knowledge in 2017, but this is what privilege is and what it does — it’s the belief that something isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem for you. It obscures others’ lived experiences so that you believe yours is the true experience; experiences that differ from yours must be anomalies, right? Well, sometimes it takes living those experiences for people to truly understand, and I have to give credit where it’s due. A lot of people don’t realize their privilege, and even if they do, they don’t do anything about it.
This guy saw what was happening, experienced it, and spoke up. Even if it took him until this point in his adult life to have this epiphany, at least he had it! And he was willing to examine himself, his beliefs, his behaviors and figure out which were problematic and why. He accepted criticisms leveled at him and — let’s hope — he’s doing what he can to bring awareness to the situation, change his own behaviors and attitudes and those within his circle, as well as amplify Hallberg’s voice so that the issues can be addressed. That’s what an ally does.