When you give your son a nice unisex-leaning-feminine name like Ashley or Carol or Kim, you might think you’re subjecting him to eight or so years of playground teasing and a lifetime of elegance. In fact, you are predisposing him to a lifetime of bias.
Meet Kim O’Grady, the Australian “technical & trade supply business” manager with engineering experience and a girly name, whose story of wrong-gender discrimination recently went viral on Tumblr. In the late nineties, he quit his job to find a new one. It didn’t work out like he thought, and he didn’t get a single call back, even after applying for lower positions. Then he added “Mr.” before his name, and suddenly he got his first two interviews, back-to-back, for much better positions than he’d ever had.
To be fair, there’s a lot that’s weird about the essay. Like its Al Gore–ish title (“How I Discovered Gender Discrimination”) and its implication that only “business people” know about this thing called logic.
“Putting on my most serious business head I went back and scoured my CV. It was the only contact any of my potential employers or their recruitment companies had had with me. My CV was THE common denominator and if something was wrong it MUST be there.”
It also sounds like he was pretty casual about sexism until it affected him.
“I pictured all the managers I had over the years and, forming an amalgam of them in my mind, I read through the document as I imagined they would have. It was like being hit on the head with a big sheet of unbreakable glass ceiling. […] I could easily imagine many of the people I had worked for discarding the document without even reading further. If they did read further the next thing they saw (as politeness declared at the time) was a little personal information, and that declared I was married with kids. I had put this in because I knew many employers would see it as showing stability, but when I viewed it through the skewed view of middle aged men who thought I was a woman, I could see it was just further damning my cause. I doubt if many of the managers I had known would have made it to the second page.”
Although he doesn’t condone it, O’Grady blames some of this bias on the fact that engineering is a male-dominated industry, and sadly he’s probably right. Even though his story takes place more than ten years ago, there’s evidence a gender bias persists in hiring in university science departments. Last year, Yale researchers sent identical résumés to professors in biology, chemistry, and physics departments. Sometimes the imaginary applicant was named John, other times Jennifer. On average, and on a scale of 1 to 7, professors graded John a 4 for competence and Jennifer a 3.3. They were more likely to mentor John, and he was offered $30,328 in starting salary to Jennifer’s $26,508. Which is why I’m naming my daughter James and praying she’s not pretty enough to get fired for it.