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Cross-Dressing and Gender Ambiguity in Shakespeare and the Corporate World

· gender,unconscious bias,equality

Last week, an investor and lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, John Greathouse, received a lot of backlash from writing a piece in the Wall Street Journal that encouraged women to gender neutralise their online presence in order to avoid "unconscious bias". In other words, he advised women to hide their gender by using their initials online and in their social networking profiles in order to avoid sexism from recruiters, hiring agencies and VCs.

The op-piece, Why Women in Tech Might Consider Just Using Their Initials Online, created a flurry of responses from women, mostly negative, about how patronising it was that an investor was suggesting women should hide their gender and further elicited an apology from John Greathouse saying that his statements were "insensitive."

However, what he was suggesting is not actually a new idea. In fact, it's been done for centuries. 

If we examine history, women have hidden their gender by using pseudonyms since the beginning of time. From 11th century Japan, the Tale of Genji, which is historically known as the first recorded novel in the world, it was revealed to have been written by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting who used the pseudonym Murasaki Shikibu. Other women who used pseudonyms included writers such as George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), the Bronte Sisters (who used the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell). However, these women were just the tip of the iceberg.

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Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, otherwise known as the literary icon George Sand, wrote her books under a male pseudonym during 1800s Europe.

Shakespeare's plays are filled with gender-bending women who dress up as men to get ahead in society. Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1596), Viola in Twelfth Night (1600), and Rosalind in As You Like It (1600) all don a masculine disguise. Even in contemporary media, in the HBO series, Game of Thrones, Arya Stark dresses up as a boy to avoid recognition of her identity and family name. 

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The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1902) at the Musée Rodin. It has been theorised by many art historians and critics that the brunt of the work of Auguste Rodin was actually produced by Camille Claudel, as all of Rodin's sculptures have her signature style of exquisite detailing in the hands, face and muscles.

I recall an art history seminar at my alma mater in which we had a rather heated discussion about why there were no great women artists in history? On the surface, it looks as if women were completely absent from the great works, but upon closer examination, women were there, but they chose anonymity and privacy over being public and known. If we look beyond the surface of "classic" works of art and literature, we will eventually discover, through diaries and correspondence letters what really transpired. It was well-known that many of the intricate details of Rodin's sculptures were actually made by Camille Claudel, and that many wives or partners of iconic writers, were themselves the collaborative authors and editors who brought those books to life. What would D.H. Lawrence be without Frieda Lawrence? T.S. Eliot without Vivienne Eliot? Leo Tolstoy without Sofia Tolstoy? Thomas Hardy without Emma Gifford? F. Scott Fitzgerald without Zelda? George Bernard Shaw without Charlotte? Dante without Beatrice? W.B. Yeats without Olivia? Frederich Nietzsche without Lou von Salomé? There is an unending historical list in how women chose to remain private as opposed to being publicly known by branding their husband's name. As T.S. Eliot writes: History has many cunning passages.

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Margaret Bulkley was the first female doctor and surgeon who served in the British army. She lived her life as a man, under a pseudonym, James Barry, so that she could be accepted as a university student and study medicine and surgery in the early part of the 1800s. She pioneered the caesarian section and was one of the most prolific surgeons in the British army. She was only discovered to be a woman after she had died.

So why did women choose to hide their gender in history? It is more or less, the same reason why certain prominent people choose to hide their identity in society. Some people want to move into a sector that is male-dominated whilst others prefer and value their privacy. We live in an exhibitionistic era, but privacy in our era is gold, and can be equated as the same as freedom. When no one knows who you are, you are free to be everywhere. This is the same reason why many billionaires choose not to be public. They erase their online identity, do not have a social network that identifies them, and no one knows what they look like, or which companies and corporations they control.

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Eric Blair, a UK covert agent, writer, journalist and critic wrote the landmark novel 1984 (published 1949) under the pseudonym, George Orwell to avoid political prosecution, like many writers of his era.

This allows people to live their lives without the intrusion of the media or critics from the populace or the government. Many writers during the turn of the century- both male and female, alike both used pseudonyms to actively avoid government prosecution and even in contemporary times, President Obama used a pseudonym to correspond with Hillary Clinton in her private email account according to FBI reports.

Therefore, what Mr. Greathouse is suggesting that women hide their gender is really not all that unusual. He uses the example that up until the late 1970s, when professional orchestras consisted of 95% men that it wasn't until they implemented a system of blind auditions in which a screen obscured the musicians' age, gender and ethnicity from the panel of evaluators that orchestras started to become equally distributed in all factors.

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Cross-dressing women are prevalent in many of Shakespeare's comedies. Viola in Twelfth Night (first theatrical production, 1602) dresses up as a boy (Cesario) in order to get a coveted position at Duke Orsino's court.

Quite frankly, I like the orchestral blind auditions idea. Perhaps the way to pave that path towards a public perception of gender equality is to adopt a blind hiring process or funding process implemented by VC groups and investors to eliminate nepotism, sexism, racism and ageism from the potential pool of applicants in matters related to hiring at corporations or the funding of startups and for military positions. The plus side for investors is that they might potentially negate the 99% failure rate of many VC groups who suffer from "unconscious bias". It has been documented time and time again that a more diverse management group leads to higher returns at many companies; however, the hiring process for many companies do not abide by this philosophy.

Instead, there could be more criteria towards cultural fit, personality compatibility and shared or complementary skill sets that might be more valuable selection criteria than simply one's name, age, race, gender, education and background. I think this could be the beginning of an interesting experiment in how people might be hired in the future across all sectors.