“My late grandfather is my operations manager”, she shrugged, like this is totally normal.

It’s an ecommerce conference — a place where online business owners get together and dig deep into the challenges and opportunities they face in this ‘soft tech’ space — so once again I’m in the minority. Not only am I one of just three Aussies who’ve made the trek to California, but of course I’m a female founder in a male-dominated field.

Checking in. Ready to talk ecommerce. Not expecting to talk about this.

I say often that my experience as a women in business has been a comparatively easy one. Occasionally it’s assumed I’m the “wife who does the books” in my husband’s business, or I get funny reactions when I explain that I work full-time while my husband works part-time and cares for our kids; but ultimately I know that these are remnants of an era that is, by and large, settling itself into the past.

Or is it?

Let me tell you how it all went down.

Conference day two. I’m in a session on storytelling, focused on helping us present the stories, big and small, that give our customers an idea of the essence and purpose of our business or product. Towards the end of the session, the call came for volunteers to present their brand’s story and work through it in front of the group.

‘Natalie’, as I’ll call her, springs up, keen as mustard to get some professional input into the story of her growing product-based brand. At the front of the room, she describes her product range (quite innovative and targeted towards a young, female audience), and how the business came to be. As was his job, the facilitator asked questions about her life, her business journey and other aspects of herself to help tease out the most compelling elements of her story.

Then it happened.

Somewhat reluctantly, almost flippantly, Natalie told us about her ‘colleagues’. Yes, not colleagues; ‘colleagues’. See she found that for over a year, suppliers and other business contacts simply refused to take her seriously. She would email and get no response, be brushed off even by other women, and was essentially battling to get any traction.

At first she struggled to understand what was happening. Her business was more than just a back-of-the-napkin idea by this point, but she needed to gain new contacts, suppliers and other vendors in order to build momentum. Why was she hitting so many walls?

At some point, it dawned on Natalie that perhaps there was a reason she wasn’t being taken seriously. She decided she had nothing to lose by inventing a series of colleagues. She created a business partner, with a very male name and his own email address, to whom she referred all suppliers. Business operations were controlled by a second male colleague, who is essentially the reincarnation of her late grandfather.

Natalie described the transformation in communication as near-miraculous. Her mythical male counterparts received virtually immediate responses, both from people she had contacted previously and from new connections.

This was not a simple matter of her company now appearing ‘larger’ — emails that came straight from one of her male colleagues were exactly the same as if they had come from Natalie. It was, plain and simple, the fact the person on the other end of the exchange was now dealing with a man.

As Natalie concluded her story, she shrugged and gave a sad half-laugh, as if to say “well yeah, what did you expect?”.

The room was well over 90% male. These were entrepreneurial, innovative men; most married with young families, and many of whom came across in my various conversations with them as quite socially liberal.

And yet from my seat in the back row, do you know what I saw as Natalie spoke?

Arms extended out across the back of the next seat, as guys reclined backwards, shaking their heads and murmuring like one does when they hear something shocking and disturbing. There was a rumble of “tsk tsk” sounds and a broad feeling of intense discomfort came over the room. While of course I can’t speak for the actual thoughts of the men in that room, the general vibe was pretty clear. This was not at all something they expected to hear.

Do you know what I was doing as Natalie spoke?

Nodding.

Because despite my experience in business having been relatively smooth sailing as far as my gender is concerned, there is nothing about Natalie’s story that genuinely surprises me. Saddens me? Angers me? Pisses me off like nothing else? Absolutely. But surprise was not something that registered for me at all. Just like Natalie, my reaction was more of a sad shrug.

I have since chatted more with Natalie and encouraged her to tell her story. She’s reluctant, because she doesn’t feel her business is ready for her to take the risk of disclosing something that has unfortunately become part of her strategy. I can completely understand this fear. However I felt compelled to share this story on her behalf, and with her permission, for two reasons. First, because of just how much it shocked and surprised the men in that room. Second, because I now realise that I probably benefited greatly from the mere existence of my flesh-and-blood male colleagues, and that the resulting ‘little’ things I’d experienced were not remnants of a bygone era — but instead flags that the assumptions and biases around gender run deep.

If female entrepreneurs are having to invent fake male colleagues in order to be taken seriously — then we still have a very long way to go.