Sexism in computer stores

In 1994 I was asked to write an article about where to buy (or not to buy) a computer system. 

The commission I received in April 1994.

The commission I received in April 1994.

In the scan of the commissioning letter I received (above), I've taken out the personal details, but there are a few interesting things to note before I start talking about sexism.

First, it's a letter, typed on a typewriter, and sent through the post (aka 'snail mail'). I mention these facts only because I tend to think of email as having been around forever, but in fact just 23 years ago it wasn't all that common. I used to communicate with people via bulletin boards like Compuserve, and also chat online with like-minded people on IRC chat, but email was simply not ubiquitous.

Secondly, I was asked to supply the article as both a printed copy and on a CD, both of which are almost unheard of today.

Anyway, about the article. Elaine and I decided to put an extra spin on the article by testing whether or not computer sellers were sexist. We did this by concocting a story in which Elaine was in the process of setting up her own garden design business, and wanted to know whether or not she needed a computer, and if so what.

So we set off to all the major computer and electronics stores, and the process was quite revealing.

First, only two sales people were actually any good. I was impressed by one of them because (a) he spoke to Elaine (you'll realise the significance of this in a moment), (b) he asked her probing questions and (c) he actually knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, in contrast to this first point, most of the sales people did not know what they were talking about. Or rather, they knew enough to bluff probably reasonably convincingly to anyone who knew even less than they did.

For example, one of them said to Elaine...

"You'll need a spreadsheet".

Elaine: "What's a spreadsheet?" (She knew, of course.)

Salesperson: "It's a thing like a grid that helps you work out costs."

Elaine: ?

Salesperson: "I'll show you."

Unfortunately for him, the computer he decided to use for the demonstration crashed with some indecipherable error message. The more flustered he became, the less I was able to keep a straight face. Elaine was brilliant though, keeping poker-faced all the way through while I buried by face in my handkerchief pretending to have a streaming cold.

Thirdly, what came though loud and clear was how patronising all of the salesmen (they were all men, apart from one, and she was very good indeed). They all seemed to assume that because Elaine knew nothing about computers, she knew nothing at all. I also had the distinct impression that they assumed that a woman running a business was doing so purely to earn some 'pin' money.

All such assumptions are often misplaced, as well as being annoying and insulting. Certainly in the case of Elaine, they were misplaced on several levels, which would not be relevant to explain here.

But the worst experience by far was in the shop where every time Elaine asked a question, the salesman answered me. He must have thought I was a ventriloquist with a high-pitched voice or something, because he completely ignored Elaine. I could feel myself becoming more and more angry until I could no longer contain myself:

"Why are you telling me?" I said. "She's the one who asked you the question."

I found it quite dispiriting that in the last years of the 20th century there seemed to be so much sexism. I wasn't surprised, but that's the point in a way: I was hoping I would be surprised, in a pleasant way.

If we were to undertake the same exercise today, a quarter of a century later, would the outcomes be any different? I like to think so.

But somehow I doubt it.