Who knew an imaginary man could get so much done? When we first published the story of Keith Mann—the fictitious male colleague created by Witchsy cofounders Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer to quiet sexism at work—we figured it would resonate quite a bit with readers, especially given some of the headlines flowing from Silicon Valley as of late. But nobody foresaw the story going quite this viral.
Since we ran the story two weeks ago, it has been picked up by a dizzying number of media outlets—the Washington Post, Quartz, Forbes, Boing Boing, the Guardian, BBC, and the New York Post are just a few of the more notable publications that couldn’t resist sharing the tale of Keith Mann with their readers as well. The story even got a mention on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” last weekend. Meanwhile, Gazin and Dwyer have been fielding calls from TV news stations and other media from around the globe—not to mention Hollywood agents curious about the story’s adaptability for television or a potential book.
“It’s pretty positive and amazing,” Gazin says of the response. “We’re just getting all these opportunities. People really want to use the story for all these creative possibilities and it’s exciting.”
Not surprisingly, Witchsy‘s website traffic has exploded from 2,500 weekly sessions to more than 46,000. The site, which peddles dark-humored art, crafts, and other merchandise, has accordingly seen what Dwyer calls a “steady rise” in sales in the last week, declining to offer specific numbers.
“We’re hitting our monthly goal today,” Dwyer tells me just six days into September. “It feels like Christmas.”
More than just a tsunami of publicity for a fledging e-commerce startup, the Keith Mann affair and the public response to it point to something much bigger and more entrenched. As with other stories that highlight the sometimes (but not always) subtle displays of sexism endured by women in professional settings, this one struck a serious nerve.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. The story itself is one that just begs to be clicked and shared. For one thing, it has an underdog appeal; Witchsy is a decidedly anti-Silicon Valley startup self-funded by two L.A.-based artists who were repeatedly told their idea wasn’t feasible. It also has the benefit of being funny. Keith Mann is probably the most hilarious name you could give to an imaginary nondescript white dude (without being too obvious and calling him Chad DeBro). As the story spread on Twitter and Facebook, it was mostly shared with gleeful nods to the entrepreneur’s name—albeit often coupled with an exhausted, knowing virtual sigh.
“I think that’s what people want,” says Dwyer. “They want to laugh while they also feel terrible about the world we live in. What’s the silver lining of the garbage we’re dealing with?”
The story is also empowering. As comedian Jon Daly tweeted, Gazin and Dwyer “are not fucking around” when it comes to dealing with needless hurdles to success like condescension and misogyny. In an era when social media feels like an ever-raging river of anxiety and bad news, a funny story about people taking a proactive, clever approach to an all-too-common issue likely stands out even more than it would have before we entered the warped, alternate reality it often feels like we’re living in.
— Jon Daly (@jondaly) August 29, 2017
“I think people are responding to our attitudes toward the problem,” says Gazin. “It sucks, but we’re doing what we can and we’ll laugh while we’re doing it.”
Their approach of tackling the issue of sexism head-on, and with humor, might not be feasible in every professional scenario, but in this case it worked wonders—Keith’s early “leadership” is now paying new dividends over a year after Witchsy launched, thanks to the story’s viral spread. Great work, Keith!
A Familiar Story
More than anything, the story seemed to resonate so well because so many people can relate to it. Aside from virtual knee-slapping about the ingenuity of Mann’s name, one of the most common responses to the story (for both Fast Company and Witchsy) was a sense of familiarity. The story both crystalized male privilege and underscored how common it is.
“A lot of people have mentioned that they felt like this is their story too,” says Dwyer. “This is something that people have been saying is so rampant.”
For many, it’s a widespread, age-old issue that is just starting to get the attention it deserves. For instance, the viral Twitter thread about male and female colleagues switching their email signatures and seeing different results was one recent indication of how relatable stories like this are. Recent headlines about Uber, the Google manifesto, and Ellen Pao have helped illustrate the problem even more thoroughly, but these high-profile examples from huge tech firms only scratch the surface of a problem that spans industries and locales well beyond the Bay Area.
Since we published the article, a number of women have reached out to share similar stories of their own. One person working for a technology startup told us that changing her email address from her name to her initials changed the tone of correspondence she received. Stories like Witchy’s, she told us, are frequently shared among women in private Facebook groups, but seldom find their way into news headlines.
Another reader recounted watching complaints of workplace sexism in Silicon Valley get met with female engineers being fired and asked to sign “non-disparagement” agreements in order to receive severance packages. Attempts to buy silence from women claiming discrimination aren’t unheard of in Silicon Valley, as former VC Ellen Pao spells out in her forthcoming book about sexism in the tech industry.
This sense of solidarity even transcends political affiliation, according to Gazin. “One of our artists was like, ‘My mom is a staunch Republican. I showed her this story and she immediately started going off about how she always deals with this kind of stuff.”
Not everyone has responded so sympathetically, of course. Some conservative and alt-right sites picked up the story, which then elicited tweets and reader comments accusing Gazin and Dwyer of lying about their experience, questioning the existence of sexism, and even suggesting that Dwyer’s dyed green hair might preclude her from knowing how to operate a business–among other, much less tasteful sentiments.
“We’re on the Daily Caller and they call us stupid lesbians,” says Dwyer, referring to the reader comments on the conservative news site. “If they’re getting riled up and talking about us, then we’re obviously really striking a nerve.”