The XX Factor

Want to Get a Job? Add “Mister” to Your Name.

What if I told you my name was Nathaniel?

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Welcome to the world in which some (white) people can’t quite accept that racism tainted the Trayvon Martin verdict, and in which it took a series of misperceptions around his name to introduce Australian business manager Kim O’Grady to the hard, cold realities of the glass ceiling.   

O’Grady, whose account of gender bias as he applied for jobs went viral this week under the title “How I Discovered Gender Discrimination,” provides an important lesson, which goes something like: Discrimination is abstract until it suddenly isn’t. (Hence the glass, rather than steel-reinforced, ceiling: The pane looks as insubstantial as air until you knock against it.) O’Grady describes applying for a series of jobs in the late 1990s:

I was experienced in managing technical & trade supply businesses. I also had engineering experience and sales experience and had demonstrably excelled at every sales and profit target I had ever been given …. I was an experienced guy in an experienced guy’s world, this wouldn’t be hard.

But it was hard—glass is hard! Despite his stellar resume, O’Grady was contacted for exactly zero interviews in four months, instead encountering rejection after rejection. So he decided to apply his sharp businessman’s brain to the Case of the Neglected Application:

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 was. O’Grady explains how “as I sat scouring every detail of that CV a horrible truth slowly dawned on me. My name.” The bolded “Kim” at the top of the resume had potential employers assuming he was a she—and it didn’t help that he’d included information about his family life (that he was married with children). So O’Grady stuck the abbreviation “Mr.” in front of his handle and sent the CV back out. Problem solved! This time, he netted two back-to-back interviews, one of which blossomed into a senior position.  

Lucky him, I say (and also, duh, because he works in the XY-saturated engineering industry—and though this happened more than 10 years ago, as The Cuts Kat Stoeffel points out, a Yale study replicated the effect in a research setting just last year). But what if Kim really were female? Should she also put “Mr.” in front of her name?

That’s a way of saying: We know the problem. What we need is a solution. Luckily, I think O’Grady’s anecdote contains both. Throughout the post, he identifies strongly with his potential employers, calling himself “an experienced guy in an experienced guy’s world” and later performing a kind of mind-meld with an “amalgam” of “the managers I had over the years.” By the last few sentences, though, he’s arrived at equal empathy for the Kims of the world who are actually women interested in engineering jobs. Of course, if he went by John or Mike, he’d probably still be laboring under the delusion that ladies just lack professional ambition, because while gender bias in the workplace represents one type of glass barrier to be broken, the limits imposed by our personal experiences seem like another. Stoeffel concludes her piece by saying she plans to name her daughter James and pray “she’s not pretty enough to get fired for it.” Maybe I’ll name my son Lucinda so that he’s not the one doing the firing.