If Only We All Could Have Gender-Neutral Names
There is an interesting story going viral about a man and a woman who switched names on their email when interacting with clients. This experiment began when Martin Schneider noticed he was having a difficult time interacting with a client. This client was being impossible, rude, dismissive, and ignoring his questions. Schneider could not understand the reason for this treatment until he realized he was signing his email with his female colleague’s name, Nicole Hallberg. Schneider then reintroduced himself and the client’s demeanor immediately changed. He was thanking him for his suggestions, responding promptly, and became the model client. As noted by Schneider, “My technique and advice never changed. The only difference was that I had a man’s name now.”
Schneider and Hallberg decided to switch names for a week. He signed on as “Nicole” and she ended her emails with the name “Martin.” At the end of the week, Schneider stated that, “it f---ing sucked,” and he, “was in hell.” Everything he asked or suggested was questioned. Clients he could work with in his sleep were condescending. One even asked if he was single. On the other hand, Hallberg had one of the easiest weeks of her professional life.
Schneider realized that Hallberg was taking longer with clients because she had to convince them to respect her. Efficiency was an obsession for their boss, so this was a critical issue in their workplace. When Hallberg and Schneider told their boss what happened, he was dismissive. Their supervisor said there could be, “a thousand reasons why the clients could have reacted differently that way. I could be the work performance . . . you have no way of knowing.” Hallberg wondered, “What did my boss have to gain by refusing to believe that sexism exists?” Perhaps that’s a question for my next blog.
Female attorneys will not be surprised by Hallberg’s experience during the email experiment. We often notice that we are treated differently from our male colleagues. There have been many examples mentioned by Lawyers Club bloggers and Above the Law has provided several examples of disparate treatment. We frequently sense we have experiences that our male colleagues do not, but the treatment is so subtle that it is hard to describe and even more difficult to prove.
Recently, I was berated and bullied by male opposing counsels during depositions. One such attorney tried to bully me into not stating my objections prior to my client’s responses and would not agree to let my client take a break. In another case, I attempted to ask a wrongful death plaintiff about who she thought was responsible for her husband’s death. Plaintiff’s counsel escorted his client out to berate me about my lack of sensitivity, while telling me to “rein it in!” I wonder if such treatment would occur if I were male. Similar to Hallberg’s supervisor, my male colleagues have been dismissive of my experiences.
I would love to hear if anyone else has these types of experiences. Do you also suspect you have experiences that your male colleagues do not encounter? How do you handle these types of situations?
Jillian Fairchild is a full-time litigator and full-time mom who spends her work life negotiating with plaintiff attorneys and her home life negotiating with a toddler.