Mansplaining — a word that has recently skyrocketed in popularity and has entered the common English lexicon to describe the often condescending manner in which male colleagues provide unrequested explanations to women.The term has origins in the 2008 essay,“Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit where she describes the experience of being condescended to by a male colleague as an experience common to many women throughout the working world. Despite never using the term “mansplaining” in the essay itself, her work struck a chord with women around the globe.Mansplaining occurs most often in workplace contexts, but can also occur in casual conversation, informal meetings, or in print.I am a firm believer in the idea that all team members have knowledge and talent to share, but how that information is communicated is critical. After talking with many successful women throughout my career, I’ve come to find that many have experienced some form of condescension as they progress in their careers.Regardless of how you slice it, any communication among the team where someone feels their ideas are being met with a condescending tone, an unrequested explanation, or humiliation in front of the group is simply hostile and unacceptable.In this blog post, I want to dive deep into the definition of mansplaining, the ways mansplaining continues to unfairly deflate female employees’ self worth and sense of value to the team, and how to identify and defuse these situations.
What exactly does mansplaining mean?
Mansplaining, originating as a combination of the words “man” and “explain”, describes the tendency of some men to talk patronizingly or condescendingly to someone, especially a woman. It arises from the mistaken assumption that the explainer has greater knowledge on the subject being discussed, often resulting in the other party feeling disarmed and unheard.In 2018, a working definition of the term appeared in theMerriam-Webster dictionary as, “to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic”.This isn’t to say that mansplaining is exclusively always perpetrated by a man directed towards a woman, but it is undisputed that women have faced numerous career barriers in the workplace throughout history.Mansplaining as a patronizing, unwarranted explanation can be experienced by people of all ages, genders and status within a company, but the term “mansplaining” finally gives women in the corporate world a succinct word to encapsulate a common form of workplace hostility primarily initiated by men that has existed for decades.
How is mansplaining different from simply explaining?
There is nothing wrong with being willing to explain things that one is knowledgeable on, but a mansplainer assumes that:1) this explanation was requested, and2) the person he’s talking to has incomplete knowledge.3) the information has to be explained in a certain way to women and a different way to men.In reality, people who have experienced mansplaining rarely request the unwarranted explanation, and more often than not, already possess the knowledge that the mansplainer is trying to communicate. Furthermore, many women report that the one doing the mansplaining is sharing their thoughts on something he has incomplete or incorrect knowledge of.This has the added effect of diminishing the explainee’s capabilities, since assumptions about competence are being made by the mere act of mansplaining. The result is a toxic workplace environment where mansplaining pervades many conversations and interactions among the team.
What does mansplaining look like in the workplace? How does it harm the team?
There are several different ways mansplaining can appear in the workplace. It helps to have a few examples:
Leslie graduated from a well-known school with a degree in computer science, and is the only woman new hire on her team. But on her first day, her male coworker — also a new hire — goes out of his way to explain the company’s programming language and suggests resources for improving. He does not do the same with other new hires, who happen to be men.
Kayla has been working in her position for a few years and is highly knowledgeable about her department. She suggests areas for improvement to her male supervisor, who then proceeds to pitch her ideas at a group meeting without crediting her. After the meeting, her supervisor denies Kayla ever had a hand in the idea.
Amy is working late when there is a power outage in the office. Despite knowing how to trip a circuit breaker, she follows company protocol and calls facilities. The electrician arrives and proceeds to explain how to trip a circuit breaker (incorrectly) without being asked.
These are just a few examples I thought of to illustrate different kinds of mansplaining, but notice how they do not necessarily involve outright hostility or obvious gendered discrimination from men in every conversation. Mansplaining is pervasive and sometimes hard to recognize, especially when more often than not, the one doing the mansplaining has honest intentions, but fails to realize that their behaviors are inherently gendered.The point here is that mansplaining is not in and of itself hostile or sexist — mansplainers are usually not aware they are doing it — but the manner in which the explainer directs their language towards a female coworker implies a gendered assumption that he knows more and she knows less about something.This creates a workplace where collaboration between employees is hindered, and productivity drops. It stifles open and constructive communication, which is why addressing mansplaining is extremely important to maintain optimal working conditions and team synergy.
How do I address mansplaining in the workplace?
Luckily, there are many avenues available for addressing this toxic form of communication, where employees can direct and change their day-to-day behavior to create a more inclusive and open space for communication.
Raise awareness and provide education
Lead by example. Promote awareness and champion more training and discussions surrounding mansplaining. Ensure that workers understand what it is, and why it creates a less respectful workplace. The more everyone is aware, the happier the team will be.
Encourage open communication
Foster an environment and company culture where every team member feels empowered to speak up and express their ideas in a respectful and constructive manner. Everyone’s voice matters and deserves to be heard.
Establish clear communication norms
It’s quick to assume that everyone is on the same page, but having concrete workplace expectations can ensure this. Have a conversation with your employees about proper communication. Set proper expectations in the company’s core values by emphasizing respectful communication. Encourage active listening and discourage interruptions and patronizing.
Address incidents of mansplaining as they are happening
There is an art to addressing mansplaining in the moment, but there a few approaches you can take whether you are simply communicating your expectations to an otherwise stellar coworker, or educating a chronic mansplainer.The next time you sense you or a coworker is experiencing mansplaining (aka: giving unwarranted advice in a condescending tone), you can try saying:
“Thank you for the advice but I’ve addressed this already.”
“Good idea, but I have my own that I’m going to try.”
“I hear you, but I also want to hear what Jess thinks.”
“Please stop interrupting me. I appreciate your effort but I already know how to do this.”
“You do not need to explain this to me.”
These escalate from firm but fair to outright confrontation, but everyone has their own way of communicating their displeasure with a social interaction, regardless of context. It is usually best to address individual instances as they arise, but if they are especially frequent despite continued efforts to communicate, it may be time to speak with management.No one deserves to experience constant belittlement, unhelpful, or poor behavior on a daily basis, and having a conversation with your team about communication expectations needs to prioritized.
Recognizing and addressing mansplaining is a crucial step towards creating a better environment where all voices are valued and respected. Despite whatever preconceived opinions someone may have on mansplaining, it is no doubt a very noticeable problem that many women face on a daily basis.By promoting open communication, setting clear norms, and leading by example, organizations can foster an inclusive environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute their unique perspectives and expertise. This not only benefits individual employees but also enhances overall team collaboration and productivity.
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