Marty Schneider and Nicole Pieri used to work together at a resume editing service, where they shared an inbox. One day, Marty got a rude awakening about what it's like to work as a woman. He took to Twitter to describe the incident:

"So one day I'm emailing a client back-and-forth about his resume and he is just being IMPOSSIBLE. Rude, dismissive, ignoring my questions. Telling me his methods were the industry standards (they weren't) and I couldn't understand the terms he used (I could) ... Anyway I was getting sick of his sh** when I noticed something. Thanks to our shared inbox, I'd been signing all communications as 'Nicole.'"

Here's what happened when he corrected the case of mistaken identity:

"I said, 'Hey this is Martin, I'm taking over this project for Nicole.' IMMEDIATE IMPROVEMENT. Positive reception, thanking me for suggestions, responds promptly, saying 'great questions!' Became a model client. Note: My technique and advice never changed. The only difference was that I had a man's name now."

In the spirit of scientific inquiry (seeing whether this result could be repeated), Marty and Nicole conducted an experiment: they switched names for two full weeks. The result? Marty summed up his side succinctly: "Folks. It fu**ing sucked."

He went on: "I was in hell. Everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single."

Nicole, on the other hand, had the most productive week of her career.

Then Marty said perhaps the most insightful thing of all:

He's right. Scientists call this invisible advantage implicit bias

Professionally, this is how it plays out: Men are more likely to get hired, more likely to get promoted, more likely to get paid more, and far more likely to reach the levels of upper management.

This isn't because men are better or smarter or more qualified. It's because of implicit bias.

In Nicole's own smart and discerning blog on the experience, Working While Female, she describes making Marty himself aware of his own implicit bias:

"[O]ne day, I lit into Marty, telling him he had a bad habit of talking over me and ignoring me. To his credit, and probably the reason that we are still friends, he listened. He took it to heart. He started using his voice to bring attention to me in meetings. I've seen him do the same for other women in mixed settings since. I'm grateful for that."

The thing about all -isms--racism, sexism, classism--is that most of the time, incidents of them are not obvious. They're cumulative. Yes, of course there are exceptions to this--in-your-face sexual harassment or racial discrimination.

But most of the time it's subtle. It's the micro-decisions we make in our lives, the way we include or exclude certain people or perspectives, how we treat those around us without realizing we're doing anything at all.

Convinced? Here are a few practical ways to take action:

  1. Understand that this is reality. It is not unique to one company. It is the water we're swimming in. Things really are harder for women in professional settings, in every way, thanks to implicit bias.
  2. Become ruthlessly and pervasively self-aware. Do you challenge, question, or diminish women colleagues, managers, or staff? Do you make a conscious and sustained effort to hire, promote, and get women into upper management in your organization? Question yourself. Question others. And note it's not just men who practice sexism. Women do it, too -- again, primarily unconsciously.
  3. Especially if you're a man, activate yourself as an ally. If a woman is interrupted, point it out and make space for her to make her point. Stand with her if it seems like someone's going to steal her idea. If someone wants to leave her out because she's on maternity leave, don't let them. You don't have to be rude about it, but be clear and firm. Be an ally.

To defeat the -isms, we must first and foremost become aware of our own biases. We must continue to share our personal stories, as Marty and Nicole both did. And we must stand up and speak up for one another, both in and out of the workplace.

It's a fight worth fighting. Together, we may even be able to win it.