I Hired a Fake Male Assistant and My Income Doubled
June 07, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career
Kate Sloan was doing pretty well for herself as a self-employed sex blogger. But she couldn’t help but wonder…what if she had a (fake) male assistant to do some of her administrative work, and most importantly, negotiate her rates for clients? Below, she explains the process and results of the experiment, which turned out to be pretty lucrative.
In my line of work as a sex blogger, I have no in-person coworkers – male, female, or otherwise – with whom to compare notes about how we’re treated or how much we’re paid. Twitter, Slack, and WhoPaysWriters – places where my fellow bloggers and freelancers convene – are the closest thing I have to a workplace water cooler: somewhere I can bring up an issue I’ve experienced and ask, “Is this normal? Should I expect better?” For the most part, I’m on my own, navigating negotiations and creative decisions with no help from anyone else, for better or worse. One upside, however, is getting to sidestep some of the workplace discrimination 42% of women in the U.S. still report.
I juggle multiple jobs from home, but my blog is, by far, my biggest source of income. Advertising, sponsored content, and affiliate commissions are the bulk of what I bring in every month. Recently I considered upping my rates, commensurate with my soaring traffic – but I had trouble summoning the confidence to slap a higher price tag on my services. I’m not alone in this feeling: a 2018 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that women are less likely than men to negotiate their salary successfully. If only I were a man, I mused dreamily – and then I remembered an experiment I’d read about in 2017.
Here’s what happened: two colleagues in the résumé writing business, Nicole Hallberg and Martin Schneider, decided to sign each other’s messages from their shared email account for a couple of weeks, to see if it affected how clients treated them. The pair noticed customers were far likelier to be rude, dismissive, patronizing, and inappropriate when they thought they were interacting with a woman. This trend reflects a culture tinged with gender bias; a 2018 study shows, for example, that men are consistently viewed as more competent and confident than women.
I decided to put my own spin on this experiment to see if I could leverage sexism to my advantage. I told my fellow blogger friends I was considering creating a fake male assistant to see if clients would be more willing to give me more money if I hid behind the façade of a man. My pals started gleefully spitballing potential names – “Brad” and “Chad” were popular contenders – but I settled on “Josh.” I thought it struck the right balance between amiable and arrogant, young and old. My boyfriend, who runs a software company, mused, “Is Josh salaried, or do you pay him hourly? Do you two get together for weekly co-working sessions at cafés? Do you think you hired him because he was a fan of your blog and gushed about it in his cover letter?” And we laughed hysterically coming up with his backstory. I set Josh up with his own email address on my domain, and began signing advertising-related emails with his name and his title, “sponsorship manager.”
Within a week, clients were already addressing Josh as if he had an equal stake in my blog, even though he was explicitly my assistant and I remained the creator and writer for the site. “It’s obvious that you put a lot of effort into your blog and that you truly care about your readers,” one potential advertiser told him. Another wrote, while negotiating a sponsored post, “We can discuss the topic or confirm whatever [Kate] wants to write on… Totally up to her and you.” Josh doesn’t exist, but if he did, he sure wouldn’t be making big-picture creative decisions.
I noticed immediately, too, that clients were much less likely to argue and haggle with Josh than they’d typically been with me. Some clients still told Josh that my rates were out of their budget, sure, but they did so politely and matter-of-factly, rather than responding in a “Who do you think you are?!” hyper-entitled way. When the real me set a rate, it was seen as the beginning of a negotiation; advertisers would talk me down from $200 to $150 for a post, for example, or sometimes even lower. But when Josh laid out the same prices, he’d typically get a “Sure” or a respectful “Can’t do that, but thanks for your time.” I watched with amazement as my blog income first increased and then outright doubled. I was so overrun with sponsored post assignments that I had to start putting clients on a waiting list. It was all too clear that this male figment of my imagination was able to garner more respect than I could, even after being the boss-lady of a profitable blog for seven years.
It got to me, too. I started to feel more powerful. Beyond just raking in more cash, Josh also helped me set professional boundaries more firmly. When a client lowballed me to a laughable degree, or suggested a post idea that would never work, or asked for types of advertising I consider unethical, Josh had no problem telling them no, because he was “just relaying a boss’s policies, not setting those policies myself.” Choosing a female name for my fake assistant might have given me the same useful degree of psychological distance, but the addition of a male mask further enabled me to assert myself and get what I wanted. I started to feel more powerful. Pretending to be a man made me feel more justified charging higher rates and standing up for myself, and it seemed to make other people respect these proclamations. And it felt good, even though I had to use subterfuge to get there.
It’s true that sexism may not be the only factor in my blog’s success since Josh came onto the scene. A person does appear more professional, one could argue, if they can afford to hire an employee, rather than answering their emails themselves. As a youngish woman writing a blog about sex, dating, and fashion, I’d often notice that people, from clients to friends to family members, didn’t seem to take the site seriously. However, once I had an assistant in tow, my little blog seemed more like a business.
I’d imagined Josh would be a time-limited experiment, but after seeing – and feeling – his effects on my bank balance, my day-to-day dealings, and my overall confidence, I wanted to extend his contract – and, in fact, I might, if having this article out there didn’t make that dicey. Although I had to confront the painful reality of workplace sexism every day to keep up this charade, Josh showed me a side of myself I’d always hoped existed: a no-nonsense, self-respecting, powerful entrepreneur. Maybe knowing about that part of myself is enough to keep him around, even when my assistant fades back into the ether. Now it remains to be seen whether clients will give as much money to a newly-confident Kate as they gave to Josh – and if they don’t, well, maybe they’re not the type of people I want to work with in the first place.