Sexist Salespeople in South African Tech Stores

This is a cross-post from Bryan Gruneberg, shared here with permission.


Our Sunday morning was a rush. My wife needed to get to work and I had offered to drive with her. If you are thinking that because she has to work on a Sunday she must work a fairly entry level job, possibly in front-of-house sales, you’d be very wrong. She in fact holds an analyst position at a listed South Africa company that has a cool 41 billion Rand market cap. She had to be at work because at the end of each month she helps oversee and coordinate a statement month end run to millions of customers. This project costs millions of Rand monthly, and brings in millions of Rand monthly. The responsibility is huge. I don’t believe that a person’s worth is related to their responsibility necessarily, but I am very proud of my wife and what she does. She works with data and tech everyday and we co-own all the tech in our lives: our smart TV was tested, selected and paid for together. Our final smartphone choices are the result of hours of discussion, fun banter, brand loyalty defense, and product comparison. We are even starting some fully online business ventures together. I am giving you this background so that you can understand the context of our experience when shopping for tech together.

After checking the multimillion Rand campaign and interrogating the analytics data of probably one of the largest consumer data sets in South Africa, while I sat quietly in the background planning my week in my moleskin journal (notice the contrast? She is working the Hi-tech, I’m the one working the Low? Good.), we decided a breakfast had been earned. My wife through her tireless commitment to performing the work she is paid well to do, and me through my tireless commitment to Scotch on Saturday nights (ok I work hard too!).

We love bacon, and if you don’t, please rethink your life choices immediately. Suffice it to say that the words “extra bacon” were uttered many times to our waiter, who largely complied with our requests, and delivered on our expectations. Our porky desires satiated, we went for a stroll through the mall. Little did we know what sexist awfulness awaited us.

Please think momentarily back past the pork if you are able (bacon!). We are both very tech-savvy people. Notice that I didn’t say “my wife is tech-savvy, and I’m a coder”. We both code. Tech is just as much an integral part of all aspects of her life as it is of mine. In actual fact there are space sciences and technologies that she knows way more about than I ever will. One of my real joys in life is talking to my wife about space, science, the things happening on the ISS, planetary astronomy, and astronauts because she is so much more knowledgeable than I am in these fields, and I get to learn crazy incredible things from her. Something else that you need to know is that of the two of us, she instinctively does a lot more upfront comparative tech product analysis.

We were excited to see that Samsung had taken over the exhibition space in the middle of the center for what looked like a launch of the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. We are both Android people (although I admittedly have been eyeing an iPhone of late), so we were both very excited to see what Samsung had done with the Edge. We walked into the exhibit, immediately sought out two demo units tethered to display cabinets and began playing with settings. My wife whips out her HTC One and begins a side-by-side comparison of the displays, features and general interface. We immediately agree that there is still something gaudy about the Samsung offering, but its quite beautiful in many ways. A sales person wanders over to me, and the horrors begin.

The horrors being with a white male salesperson coming over to ME. Not to us, not to her, to ME. I don’t immediately notice that it is only me being recognized as a potential buyer. My wife notices – she should notice – but she keeps her disappointment to herself. Why make a scene, right? Unluckily for the sales person, he chose the least social of our couple to engage with, and I wave him away with a mild disregard. Not because I’ve noticed his unacceptable sexist attitude, but because I can’t stand tech sales people that don’t have advanced engineering training, and who could (and should) be easily replaced by an interactive touchscreen display. If only he’d known that my wife is quite sociable, and likes geeking-out about tech. He could have gotten two forms filled in. It is Samsung’s loss. But is it?

Moments later another salesperson appeared. An Indian female sales person. We’re were still playing, and as I am an equal-opportunity-salesperson-dismisser, she was waved off by me with as much subtle contempt as the first person was. Waved off by me. Not us. And not my wife. By me. Again disappointed she said nothing. Again the salesperson and Samsung lost out on another two entries into their promotion. Their loss. But is it?

Having test driven the S6 we decided it was time to move on. I left feeling somewhat disappointed by the S6 interface. My wife left feeling disappointed for quite a different reason.

We meandered down the mall, and passed the Samsung store. The store was full of promotion girls and boys donning cameras and making creating a spectacle with their customers. It looked awful, but mostly because of what you already know about me and salespeople. However I was immediately reminded of a terrible experience we had in that store about 6 months before. We were on the hunt for a UltraHD TV, and had gone to see what Samsung had to offer. Both my wife and I were geeking-out at the specs, and a particularly awful salesperson placed himself between myself and my wife with his back to her and spoke directly to me. Because I couldn’t stand him, and his tactics this time were horribly transparent, insulting and frankly nauseating, we left almost immediately. And I won’t go back there. Their loss. But is it?

We ended up buying a lovely UltraHD TV from LG that same day months ago. We got it at a steal. On the day we bought it I was completely convinced it would fit on one of the walls of our lounge. My wife was unconvinced, and we took a small bet: Whoever was wrong would buy the TV. It was a fun bet because we have operated a joint cheque account since about 6 months before we got married. We were buying it together regardless of who won. For the record, my wife’s spatial perception memory is way better than mine. She was spot on!

So back to our Sunday of sexism, we carried on past Samsung and found ourselves walking by our LG Store – the same one where we had fond memories of a non-sexist engagement after a particularly terrible Samsung sexism. In the middle of the store I saw that they had a display of the LG G3, and with the Samsung S6 freshly in my mind, I thought it would be cool to compare the two products. We went in together, I started playing with one of the tablets, while my wife started flicking through the options on the G3, audibly noting the feature differences to me. It turns out that our previous experience was a completely lucky event.

The salesperson came directly over to us and greeted me by saying “Good day Sir”. I sort of grunted hi, and my wife said hi in an attempt to engage him. He dismissively said hi back to her, and then asked ME if he can help ME! I didn’t immediately notice how ridiculous and sexist this whole engagement was, and I half-replied by telling him we were comparing the LG offering to the Samsung offering, but don’t need any of his help (read: said politely please god leave me alone immediately).

But this time it is clear that my wife has had all the disappointment she can take for one day. She had been actively excluded from taking part in three product showcase opportunities because the people who she could have geeked-out with – the very people who are employed to geek-out with potential consumers – would not acknowledge her as a individual, let alone as an consumer!

After three horrific engagements, she let me into her world of disappointment. She was a bit angry, a bit put off, but mostly massively sad and disappointed. Disappointed in the salespeople, disappointed in the experience, disappointed in the brands themselves, and disappointed that she has to go through life working as hard (harder probably) as I do, to be continually cast down as a second rate consumer and individual who will not ever be engaged directly about things that she is passionate about.

I’ve said over and over that this is their loss, but is it?

It really is not just their loss. These actions have effects. They have effects on my wife’s self confidence, on her self image, and the image she has of her gender more generally. Through their unthinking and deeply embedded sexism these salespeople from both genders, and different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, have effectively dehumanized and subordinated her to a second class consumer. And this is unacceptable in modern society and damaging to a modern economy.

As consumers and business leaders in a fast paced and hyper-connected economy we have to demand more from people. These salespeople need training. The sexist and racist assumptions embedded into people’s everyday approach to common economic transactions have to be checked, because they have real effects on people. In my opinion business leaders have a moral obligation here. The irrational economic premises embedded in a front-of-house salesperson which effectively halve (if not more) a companies potential market will probably be corrected in the market as marketers will figure out how to sell their wares to women. Women currently have to largely “put up” with this sexist environment because the imperative to have technology in order to be competitive and to be connected will probably outweigh most peoples moral desire (when it even exists) to resist this embedded sexism.

But lets not kid ourselves. It is not Samsung’s loss, and it is not LG’s loss. The entrenched sexism has an effect on real people. It reinforces the social stratification that says women are less than men in the minds of men, and in the minds of women. It reinforces the idea that technology is for boys, and not for girls. And it means that my wife – who is a foot smarter than me in my estimation – loses the drive and desire to be in the technology sector because her gender means that she doesn’t get to play. This is a loss for me, it is a very real loss for her, and taken to the extreme where this happens to millions of women world wide and daily, it is a massive loss for our economy and the progress of our society.

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