Women posing as men to beat male privilege is nothing new

But rather than dealing with male privilege is it caving in to sexism or being strategic?

Should it even be necessary in 21st century?

Women have posed as men throughout history. Not for any transsexual reason, but because they wanted to get things done and achieve their dreams. It was to join wars, write books that are actually published and to play their sport of choice.  Men and the stereotyped perceptions of female abilities and what women were “supposed to do” were blocking their paths. These women realised that strategically applying male privilege to themselves and posing as men not women, would advance their goals.

So think:

  • George Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans)
  • Currer Bell (née Charlotte Bronte)
  • Rena Kanokogi – posed as a man to enter the US Judo Championships
  • Kathrine Switzer signed up for the Boston Marathon under the name K. V. Switzer in 1967
  • JK Rowling (real name Joanna) disguised her name on the advice of her publicist to target a male audience.

Male privilege in 21st century

Today two entrepreneurs Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer were frustrated by the disrespect from the web developers they hired for their start-up. So to get around it the created a third Co-Founder  – a man. Keith Mann to be precise. Seemingly this small gender tweak and concession to male privilege produced an immediate and positive change in attitude.

Two co-workers based in the US switched email signatures for two weeks. Martin R. Schneider (@SchneidRemarks), a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, PA, observed that a client was being “rude” and “dismissive” to him via email.  He then saw that his email signature had been accidentally set to that of coworker Nicole Hallberg (@NickyKnacks)  The two co-workers decided to swap identities for two weeks as an experiment by switching signatures.  This small gender switch produce some interesting and for some predictable results.

Hallberg’s work weeks became easier than usual, while Schneider encountered challenges. Hallberg said

“We take this shit over and over and over again out of fear of the men in power, and it helps perpetuate it. I’ll always be understanding of a woman who doesn’t want to or can’t afford to stick her neck out,” Hallberg said, noting that she doesn’t think telling her story will hurt her chances of getting work in the future.

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Perception is everything

male privilege


According to a YouGov survey of 800 HR decision-makers about women’s experiences at work: Almost half of female HR directors and decision-makers think their workplaces are sexist, compared with only a quarter of men in the same position. That is  a wacking 75% of male leaders do not think that work places are sexist and reflect male privilege.  In the U.S. Pew Research Center, some 59% of US men – a simple majority – refuse to believe that sexism exists.

I have run workshops where some men genuinely believed that a room of 45 men and 8 women was gender balanced. There was no ill will about the statement. It was a genuine experience for some of the men present, despite the empirical data to the contrary.

Viewed through the lens of male privilege, there is a perception that when there are any women at all involved, gender parity exists.

Denying the existence of sexism when all evidence leans to the contrary leads to crazy making thinking. When Susan Fowler published Reflecting on her very strange year at Uber there were a number of HR pundits who even suggested that it would be best to wait until all sides of the issue had been aired. The so-called Google memo which buzzed through the internet in August penned by James Damore, was analysed every way to Sunday. Some suggested that he had a point and he was indeed voicing the views of an unheard  and silenced demographic. Or perhaps he was having a hissy fit because his (white) male privilege wasn’t as strong as he wanted it to be. Damore then goes on to court the Alt Right including Peter Duke, as well as the discredited UK right-winger Milo Yiannopoulos who has even been permanently banned from Twitter. That is how objectionable and offensive he is.

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We have also seen when women involve men in charges of sexism they are taken more seriously than if they go it alone or even support each other. When men deny the existence of sexism it adds an even greater weight  to the ongoing battle that women have in establishing themselves and their credentials in a male coded world.

So if a woman poses as a man is she caving in to the sexism of male privilege or simply being strategic like many women before her?


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3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Business, Culture, Leadership, Sexism
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Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.

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