Women entrepreneurs create fictional male co-founder to counter tech sexism

30 Aug 2017

Image: Artem Podporin/Shutterstock

Witchsy’s women founders discovered an amazing change in tech bro behaviour when they created a fake co-founder called Keith Mann.

Hey, have you heard of that dashing co-founder of Witchsy, Keith Mann? No? Well, you ought to. He’s the quite the bro, dude! Maybe he should speak at your next big tech conference?

Oh, but you see Keith Mann is not a man. He’s not even real. He’s a fictional creation by two women start-up founders, who, weary of the condescension and outright sexism in the tech world, created Keith Mann to get designers and developers to take them seriously and basically get work done.

Yeah, seriously! The story setting the tech world on fire today (30 August) is that of Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer, who created a marketplace for weird art called Witchsy, a dark-humoured counterweight to bright and cheerful Etsy.

Unfortunately, Gazin and Dwyer were awash in a sea of tech bros who would not take them seriously. And so, they introduced Keith Mann as a co-founder, and everything changed.

You see, the tech industry has a problem with sexism. And it has reached boiling point. When it is not the resignation of the former CEO of Uber over a litany of scandals, or resignations at 100 Startups, there is Ellen Pao’s recent high-profile court battle with her former employer, the hurt caused in recent weeks by a former Google worker’s whining screed – claiming that the sexual imbalance in tech is down to women’s abilities, or lack thereof – and evidence that 60pc of women in Silicon Valley have been sexually harassed at some point.

Adding fuel to the fire is the sad reality that women make up only 6pc of partners at venture capital firms with a corresponding rate of investment, according to Astia. It is worse for minorities.

White men like to invest in white men, it seems. And developers and programmers seem to be unable to take women tech founders seriously.

This was a man’s world

Unfortunately for Gazin and Dwyer, the travails of start-up life – such as the usual shortage of cash – were compounded by doubting Toms and a fair dollop of condescension.

According to Fast Company, in year one, Witchsy had made a profit based on revenues of $200,000, and attracted a small investment from Justin Roiland.

Despite these early successes, one developer threatened to delete the website because Gazin declined to go on a date with him.

Not only that, but Gazin and Dwyer noticed a pattern where male developers and graphic designers responded with patronising tones, were slow to reply to emails and were just downright rude.

That’s when an idea sparked. Create a third co-founder called Keith Mann to do the correspondence. Suddenly, everything changed.

“It was like night and day,” Dwyer told Fast Company. “It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with.”

The founders noticed that Keith somehow attracted greater deference from male developers, including people referring to Keith directly by name but the real founders as just “girls”.

Instead of getting mad, Gazin and Dwyer kept the fake Keith alive in a deliciously cruel riposte at the expense of the ‘tech bros’.

“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. We want this and want to make this happen.”

All we can say to Dwyer and Gazin is, very well played.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years