Two Philly-area colleagues performed an experiment with email a few years ago: They switched genders and communicated with their clients as each other.
Martin R. Schneider, a 29-year-old Philadelphian, and Nicole Hallberg, a 28-year-old Drexel Hill resident, quickly discovered they were treated differently. Schneider, posing as Hallberg, was repeatedly questioned and challenged. Hallberg, posing as Schneider, found she more easily earned respect.
Their story went viral after sharing their experience on Twitter in March. Since then, they’ve created a podcast called “Not Each Other,” where they chat about everything from women-only screenings of Wonder Woman to street harassment and dress codes.
As part of a project the Inquirer has launched about gender-loaded words, we talked to Schneider, now a business-development consultant and Temple University graduate student, and Hallberg, a freelance blogger, about sexism and why it’s hard to prove, and their experiences with these words. These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Why is it difficult for some men to acknowledge that discrimination against women exists?
Martin: For men, particularly, I think it’s because everyone basically accepts that sexism is a bad thing, and everyone thinks of themselves as a good person. So: ‘I’m a good person, therefore I cannot do sexism.’ So it’s easier to deny this or to say that a woman is overreacting or that hundreds of women are overreacting, than it is to look internally and say, ‘Oh, maybe I do, casually, without menace, partake in some of this cultural sexism.’
Nicole: Men will get defensive very quickly, even if you’re calling out behavior that isn’t their own. If you’re calling out other men as being creepy, they get mad.
Literally, just now before I got in the car, I was walking down the sidewalk for a business meeting, and I had one man lean way over in his chair to leer at me as I walked past.
The next guy that looks at me sideways today, I’m very close to punching in the face — because he will literally be No. 5.
How do you prove discrimination is happening?
Nicole: We usually can’t. You almost always can’t.
Martin: You can’t really prove a shift in tone, especially in writing, and that’s what people are combating: a society where, for generations, we’ve just assumed that women are more emotional and therefore more likely to over-exaggerate their stories. And it has led to a natural sense of disbelieving someone.
Nicole: As soon as a woman comes forward with an accusation, we look at the tapes, we call her a whore, we drag her through the mud. This isn’t a pleasant experience for the women who come forward, and they know it’s not going to be.
Martin: That’s why an entire high school cheerleading squad worth of people had to come out and accuse Bill Cosby before anyone would move on it, even though we’ve known for decades. And that was pushed forward because a man said something, because Hannibal Buress was at the Trocadero and made an awkward joke about it.
What words have you been called that are supposed to be gender-neutral but often directed at women (or men)?
Nicole: I’ve been called emotional. I’ve been called sensitive … ‘You’re inexperienced, you’re naive.’ I don’t think any of these things would have been said about a guy. … definitely emotional.
Martin: I find it really funny that Nicole said emotional, because the only time I’ve ever been called emotional is if somebody was saying, ‘He’s kind of a girl,’ or if I was showing a feminine trait.
Stuff that is commonly given to men — I think we get to be called assertive. We get to be called ambitious and assertive, or outspoken. Outspoken is a really interesting one, because it normally is viewed as a positive for men, but as a negative or controversial word for women.
Let’s talk about your experience of switching email signatures and posing as each other. When did you realize people were treating you differently?
Nicole: It was all so subtle. It was a hundred little comments, a hundred little digs, a hundred little words used a little bit differently.
Martin: I was getting challenged a lot more, and if I wasn’t getting challenged, then the exact opposite was happening, and I would get smiley faces or a lot of attempts to reassure me and condescend to me in a different manner. And it was stuff that I was not used to. I was used to pretty matter-of-fact things: I ask a question, you give me the answer. We move on.
Prior to that, working under my name, I had a baseline level of respect that just having a masculine name commanded, whereas when I was working with a feminine name, I had to work harder to earn that respect.
What reaction have you received since you went viral and started the podcast?
Nicole: It really runs the gamut. I’m going to say it was overwhelmingly positive. It was mostly just hundreds, if not literally thousands, of women, saying: ‘This was so validating. Here’s my story. I went through the same thing. I’m so glad it’s not just me.’
And then people going online just to say I’m a stupid, lying whore.
Martin: When we published this, I received my handful of alt-right criticism, angry men yelling slurs at me. That stuff I can ignore. But I also received a good amount of criticism from far-left feminists who would ask questions like, ‘Why does a person need to do an experiment to notice this?’ or, ‘Why does this need to come from a man for us to pay attention?’ I think those criticisms are valid. I think that they are important discussion points. But I was not expecting to get that much pushback.