‘I do the work and he takes the bows’: The women who use fake male assistants

Tanya Sweeney: It’s amazing how much easier life can be when people think you’re a man

Manssistant: Stephanie Zimbalist, as Laura Holt, and Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele. Photograph: NBC

Manssistant: Stephanie Zimbalist, as Laura Holt, and Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele. Photograph: NBC

 

If you are a freelancer or your own boss, you’ll know that some parts of the job are worse than others. Chasing people for payment, turning down collaborations, telling clients you have limited availability – none of it is fun. Have you ever wished you could palm all the mucky stuff off on an assistant?

Bess Kalb, an American comedy writer, says she has a friend who went one better: she created an assistant to deal with her schedule, among other things, simply by setting up a fake email account. She also made her assistant a man. Kalb tweets that people called her friend “‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’ for having small windows of availability until ‘he’ started running interference and then people just accepted she was f***ing busy. I am very into this.”

She’s not the only one. The ensuing Twitter thread, of more than 19,000 comments and retweets, sees plenty of other women admit to similar tactics. Instead of negotiating, co-operating or fighting their corners as themselves, they have rather cleverly resorted to what you could call an homme de plume.

I have one named Mike that handles my booking. It’s funny because he somehow can negotiate for more money on my behalf than I can negotiate on my own

One poster, Nicole Cardoza, writes: “I also have one named Mike that handles my booking. It’s funny because he somehow can negotiate for more money on my behalf than I can negotiate on my own.” Leah Mayo adds: “I have an email address with a man’s name that I used to negotiate the price of my new car… and told the dealer ‘my wife’ would come pick it up. Highly suggest it.”

Another poster, Delilah Night, notes: “A friend of mine who owns a small press has a male assistant because mediocre dudes take rejections from the male assistant better.”

Other women admit to “checking” with a male partner about difficult issues or conversations, effectively handing the bad-cop role over to another, albeit nonexistent, person. Other women have hedged their bets with a gender-neutral name.

It carries more than a whiff of the 1980s TV show Remington Steele, in which a woman private eye hires a former thief to become her boss in a bid to be taken seriously. In a trailer for the series, our heroine Laura Holt notes: “A female private investigator seemed so feminine, so I invented a superior – a decidedly masculine superior... Now I do the work and he takes the bows.”

We probably didn’t laud it enough for its prescience at the time, but anyway. Forty years later, here we are.

Certainly, having an assistant or agent immediately offers a certain amount of cachet in business. If you have an assistant on the payroll, you must be pretty busy, important or both, right? And although it may be a clever way to circumvent misogyny in the workplace in the short term, the fact that so many women attest to the effectiveness of the phantom “manssistant” is still pretty depressing.

We have stood in apartments where workmen have addressed the man living there about leaky taps or rising damp. We have endured mansplaining from mechanics

It speaks volumes about how clients, colleagues and collaborators view forthright women compared with how they view assertive men. If you are a woman and busy, you’re “difficult”. If you’re a man with limited availability, you’re simply busy; no questions asked. It also demonstrates that many women have no problem asking for what they want or need professionally but are hesitant to be forthright as themselves, for fear of repercussions.

Women have noticed this sorry state of affairs. Even outside of the workplace we have stood in apartments where workmen have addressed the man living there about leaky taps or rising damp. We have endured mansplaining from mechanics. If we could have sent fake blokes to do the gig for us, we probably would have.

We see those who, consciously or not, treat women in the workplace differently. Instead of trying to will the patriarchy into change (which seems a right fool’s errand by now), they are simply resorting to playing it at its own game. It’s not even about getting ahead; it’s about being treated as an equal, with civility.

Doing all the work while “he” takes the bows is not the solution women wish for, but while we’re waiting for people to realise that men and women aren’t all that different, it’ll have to do.

In the meantime I’m about to spend the afternoon thinking up a suitable name for my own assistant. One Twitter user, @uncIeamerica, suggests: “I recommend Konstantin or Aleksandar. He’s Balkan European, which means he can be rude, difficult, and impossible all at once and you can always explain it as a cultural thing.” Sounds genius to me.

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