Among the thousands of business stories that have emerged over the past couple of weeks, by far the most eye-catching is Fast Company’s interview with a pair of female co-founders who had to create a fictional male colleague in order to be taken seriously.

By that point, the entrepreneurs – Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer – had already weathered a host of doubts from their friends and associates over the business concept behind their website Witchsy: an art-themed e-commerce platform that sells patches, brooches and bags featuring eccentric graphics and slogans.

According to Dwyer: ““When we were getting started, we were immediately faced with ‘Are you sure? Does this sound like a good idea?’I think because we’re young women, a lot of people looked at what we were doing like, ‘What a cute hobby!’ or ‘That’s a cute idea.’”

That condescending attitude was amplified in the treatment that the women received from male external contractors, such as web developers and graphic designers – many of whom talked down to them in official communications, and one of whom even began an advisory email with the phrase, “Okay, girls…”

Bogged down in this tide of casual sexism, the founders hit upon a unique solution: they would create a fictional, male co-founder called ‘Keith Mann’, whom they’d use as a conduit for the majority of their external dealings.

As Dwyer recounts, “It was like night and day. It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else, or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with.”

What does this say about how female startup leaders are treated in the early stages of their businesses?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “This is a stark reminder that no matter how gender balanced your own organisation is, how inclusive your policies are, or how much you recognise the value and importance of a diverse workforce and management team, you will still encounter unenlightened partners in the supply chain that you will have to deal with.”

James adds: “It would be a fascinating exercise for these entrepreneurs to go back to the suppliers and partners that formed a winning rapport with ‘Keith’, and ask them to explain why they were more forthcoming than they may have been if they’d known they were dealing with two women. Also, when they select suppliers in the future – and remember, they’re the customers in this equation – it would be useful for them to ask what those contractors and potential partners are actually doing about diversity and gender equality.

“How could the suppliers guarantee that this difference of response between male and female emails would not happen in their organisations? It’s about having those difficult conversations as part of the tender. In a supply chain, your policies are only as strong as those of the weakest link. Therefore, you have to be able to trust and admire your suppliers.”

For further thoughts on appreciating diversity, check out these learning resources from the Institute