By Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO, Business Publications Corp.
Have you ever had a situation in a meeting where a person – perhaps a man – explained something to you that you obviously had expertise in, or doubted your qualifications publicly? This used to happen to me frequently as a young woman in finance, and sometimes it was difficult to know how to respond. Therefore, I was recently delighted to run across the experience of an Australian associate professor of neuroscience named Dr. Tasha Stanton. While at an Australian Physiotherapy Association conference in 2019, a man recommended to Dr. Stanton that she should consult an academic paper on the topic at hand – and it turned out to be her own paper.
After her subsequent tweet about this encounter went viral, Stanton was featured on “Good Morning America,” where she said, “It was just … this amazing, somewhat delicious moment because you just never get that opportunity to actually be like, ‘Hold up there for a second, friend. I am Stanton. I’m the one that you just mentioned.’”
The phenomenon of when a person – usually a man – provides a condescending explanation of something to someone who already understands it is now often referred to as mansplaining, a made-up word that combines the words man and explaining. Most women have experienced it. While not always gender-specific, new research conducted by Michigan State University graduate research fellow Caitlin Briggs and published in the Journal of Business and Psychology indicates that females tend to react more negatively to being mansplained, simply because we are so often questioned about our competence and qualifications.
“What we found was that women largely had negative outcomes as a result of being mansplained to, whereas it didn’t affect men as much,” said Briggs. “They tended to register that their competence was being questioned more than men did, and to attribute this to a gender bias – so, maybe this person doesn’t think highly of me or doesn’t like me because of my gender.”
Mansplaining undermines confidence. Another study backs up the prevalence of mansplaining as well as the havoc it can wreak on women’s confidence and subsequently their productivity at work. Carleton University researcher Chelsie Smith and her colleagues interviewed both U.S. and Canadian adults about mansplaining, asking if they had experienced it, how frequently had it occurred, and the gender of the perpetrator.
They found that mansplaining was ubiquitous, with nearly every individual interviewed reporting “having experienced it at least once in the past year, regardless of their gender.” They also found women exhibited the same behavior but less often. Additionally, reviewing video footage revealed that women talked less after a man spoke condescendingly to them compared with men, suggesting that women are more affected by such interactions.
Mansplaining erodes employee engagement. These studies show us that mansplaining does happen frequently and can have a measurable impact on women, leading to workplace dissatisfaction. Smith said, “Mansplaining can lead to employees feeling that they are undervalued or not valued in their workplace, or as though they don’t belong – even if there was no negative intent on the part of the instigator.”
I turned to several leaders and asked their opinion on why mansplaining is so damaging to women in the workplace.
Amy Jennings, executive director, Lead DSM: Mansplaining is detrimental because the valuable and diverse contributions of women are disregarded or not heard. When mansplaining happens to me, the person often says something like, “I don’t know what you know about this subject and I don’t want to mansplain, but let me explain. …” This is said without pausing for a response. The awareness that they may be mansplaining, but then doing it anyway, perpetuates the assumption that women have less knowledge and therefore less value in the workplace or community.
Luisita Dona McBurney, founder and executive board chairwoman, Filipino American Society: Mansplaining in the workplace has led to numerous instances of being undermined or dismissed based simply on my gender. Additionally, as a woman of color, oftentimes race plays a factor in this dismissive behavior. I have often found myself having to prove my competence repeatedly, while my male colleagues were assumed competent from the outset. This type of condescending behavior has a negative connotation on my confidence, while also perpetuating gender and racial bias. It is crucial for organizations to recognize the detrimental effects of mansplaining and take proactive steps to foster an inclusive workplace for everyone.
Patty Sneddon-Kisting, executive director, Urbandale Food Pantry: I have been constantly surrounded by women in the nonprofit world. The American Association of University Women says women make up 75% of jobs in nonprofit, education and philanthropy sectors, but women hold less than 75% of leadership positions. When a woman’s knowledge or expertise is questioned, we undermine their value and imply a lack of trust. Mansplaining can be damaging because it assumes incompetence instead of presuming competence. It can stifle a woman’s ability to perform at her best, or to bring ideas/solutions to the table. It also perpetuates a systematic undertone of inequality and gender bias, which is destructive for organizational culture.
Andrea Woodard, senior vice president of government relations and public policy, Greater Des Moines Partnership: Conversations in the workplace should be approached with professionalism and respect. Each circumstance is different, and through a lens of civility, we can communicate and listen with good intent.
I asked these leaders for advice on what to do if you find yourself in a situation where your qualifications or competence is being questioned, or where you are being dismissed.
Luisita Dona McBurney: Trust yourself. Remember that you have knowledge, expertise and valuable insights to contribute. Believe in your abilities and trust your instincts. Recognize that mansplaining is not a reflection of your capabilities but rather a reflection of another person’s biases. Stay confident and focus on your personal growth. Don’t let your bad experience undermine your self-assurance. Seek support. Build relationships with supportive colleagues and mentors who recognize and value your contributions. Surround yourself with trusted people. Sharing your experience with others who have faced similar situations can be empowering and help you navigate challenging encounters.
Amy Jennings: My advice to women is to interrupt and share what they know. My advice to men is to be aware of when they are making assumptions about a woman’s understanding and then to stop and listen, as well as to step in to advocate for women when they see others undervaluing women’s contributions.
Patty Sneddon-Kisting: I would encourage women to never downplay or devalue what they bring to the table, their knowledge, and their voice. You are in that seat for a reason. Interject when there is no explanation needed or ask for clarification when there is. If you are in a situation when mansplaining is happening, speak up and say something. The key is to not let it go unaddressed. Maybe the person didn’t know they were doing it. If they did know, make them aware that there is no need for it and that it can be harmful and detrimental to the growth of the company or organization.
Andrea Woodard: In challenging situations, I try to start with the goal of the conversation and communicating with civility in mind. I’ve also been actively working on improving my listening and asking questions to better understand other perspectives and points of view.