Ask Alto : What is mansplaining, and why does it matter?

May 18, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

Men regularly try to explain that there weren’t women writing in the Middle Ages (I have a PhD in medieval women’s writing). - Kathryn Maude, Twitter

How to ride a bike. While I’m on my bike. By a guy sitting in the SUV driving next to me. - Allison McCartney, Twitter

When writer Rebecca Solnit wrote an article entitled Men Explain Things to Me; Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way in 2008, she didn’t use the term “mansplaining”. But her opening anecdote touched a nerve: she writes about her host at a party, telling her about a very important book that he’d read without listening to the information that Solnit had, in fact, written the book.

A month after the article appeared, the word appeared in a comment on the social network LiveJournal. It became popular among feminist bloggers before entering mainstream commentary and social media (see the tweets at the start of this article). By 2018, the term “mansplaining” appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as follows:

“Mansplaining – when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.”

Mansplaining (and other kinds of condescension)

Men are not the only people prone to condescending explanations. Writing for Career Contessa, Danielle Doolen notes that there are multiple variations of mansplaining: whitesplaining, for instance, which happens when a white person explains racism to a person of colour. Or momsplaining, which (in one definition) is explanation, opinion or advice from one mother to another, often unwanted, presented in a condescending, self-righteous and/or judgemental fashion.

Whatever kind of “splaining” is going on, Kim Goodwin, the creator of a viral chart that breaks down mansplaining, identifies the three factors at play:

Whether the person asked for an explanation - if someone asks a question, explain away! Unsolicited explanations may be fine (within reason) if you’re someone’s teacher or manager. But explaining after the other person has declined your help is almost always disrespectful, Goodwin writes.

The assumptions being made about competence – explaining things to knowledgeable people is a waste of time. It also implies that you distrust their competence or intelligence.

The effect of bias in interpreting those two factors – your own unconscious biases may interfere with your ability to listen to people, and with your ability to be sensitive to their need (or not) for your explanation. “We all like to think we treat people fairly, but men often assume women are less competent, and white people are likely to assume darker skin equals lower intelligence,” Goodwin writes.

Mansplaining in the workplace

It’s tempting to dismiss the use of the term “mansplaining” as a social media trend. But it does have a real impact in the workplace, say researchers Linda Schweitzer, Professor of Management and Strategy, at Canada’s Carleton University, and PhD candidates Chelsie J. Smith and Katarina Lauch. They surveyed working North Americans to ask them if they had experienced mansplaining, how frequently it had occurred if they did and the perceived gender of the perpetrator.

They asked people of all genders to report on behaviours associated with mansplaining and found that nearly every individual in the study, regardless of gender, experienced at least one of the mansplaining behaviours. “But women and gender minority employees experienced a wider range of the characteristic behaviours and experienced them much more often.”

Their results suggest that mansplaining has significant detrimental effects on the targets. “Each of the mansplaining experiences were associated with lower organisational commitment and job satisfaction and higher turnover intentions, emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.”

They point out that mansplaining is part of a broader set of workplace issues that they call workplace incivility: less obvious targets for a corporate diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, but morale-sapping nevertheless. Leadership and management can play their part in dealing with it, but there are some tactics that individuals can try too.

When it happens to you - how to deal with a mansplainer

Experts are unanimous: ignoring the interruption or condescending speech is not an option, because the issue is then not addressed. Here are some ways to deal with a know-it-all:

  • Thank your colleague for their input and politely remind them of your credentials.
  • If someone tries to take ownership for something you said earlier in the meeting, thank them for reminding everyone of your idea, and then elaborate on your message. Or say: “You are right – that’s exactly what I wrote in my previous report.”
  • Maintain eye contact with the mansplainer as he interrupts and keep talking. This signals that you are noticing the mansplaining but that you will maintain your role as main speaker despite the attempt to talk over you.
  • Enlist other team members as allies. A colleague can jump in and say: “Actually, Aisha knows a lot about this. Let’s hear from her.”
  • Invite the mansplainer for coffee and an informal get-to-know-you conversation. Talk about who you are and what you know.
  • Take advantage of any coaching or training opportunities your company offers. If none exist, then invest in development yourself. Become a more confident, effective communicator by investing in professional development.

How not to be a mansplainer

Writing on LinkedIn, leadership coach Marjorie Brody says self-awareness is the first step to change. “With coaching and practice, you can change the way you interact and communicate with others – male and female. Learning to attentively listen and refrain from interrupting will show your peers, direct reports and clients the respect they deserve when voicing an opinion or otherwise speaking.”

Three practical steps to take:

  1. Ask the other person about their familiarity with a topic–before explaining it.
  2. Acknowledge the other person’s (potential) lived experience with the topic, even if you can speak about it with authority.
  3. Have a dialogue. Allow the other person to participate in the conversation, regardless of their experience level.

What leadership can do to cut down on mansplaining

Leaders have a responsibility for the wellbeing of their teams and a mansplainer can negatively affect team dynamics, as well as preventing the flow of ideas. Career coach Stephanie Heath recommends these steps:

  • Talk to the offender one-on-one, focusing on their relationship with team members. Heath told Business Insider that mansplainers are often oblivious to the problem and think that they are being helpful.
  • Share your own observations of team meetings and interactions. Talk about your colleagues’ credentials in a way that makes a connection between the parties: “I know you’re passionate about XYZ. Did you know that Zuri and Maya have worked in this field?”
  • Assume positive intent and encourage self-regulation. Say: “Maybe you’re not aware you’re taking up so much airtime. If you find yourself talking for longer than a minute, I’d like you to pause and give others a chance to speak.”
  • If the mansplaining continues, you might need to shut it down in real time. Interrupt the offender, and politely ask them to allow others to speak.