Men, Let’s Talk about Mansplaining (and Allyship)

Effective allies stop mansplaining in its tracks.

One of the many perks of my job is talking to women (and men) about what’s happening in the workplace and collaborating on real solutions to advance a mutually beneficial culture of equity and inclusion. Inevitably, these discussions uncover an underlying sense of frustration around a litany of microaggressions that women experience daily. In a recent consulting session, the recurring theme was the microaggression of “mansplaining.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary editors, mansplaining is “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing” (Steinmetz, 2014).  Writer Rebecca Solnit is credited with identifying mansplaining as a concept in her 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.”

Women understand immediately what the term means and bristle at the condescending and belittling behavior associated with it. Men sometimes need a fuller explanation, so here we go:

Mansplaining: the blending of “man” and “explain” to refer to a man providing an unrequested explanation to a woman, often interrupting her while talking and done with a knowing tone.

According to a recent article in The HR Digest, the best way to deal with a mansplainer in the office is to speak up – right away. Author Anna Verasai notes, “Most of the time, some of these male coworkers have no idea what they are doing wrong. Some of them grew up with the idea that they have more authority over women and can speak down on them whenever they want. So, addressing the problem head-on will be a good way to go.”

To address the issue, Verasai suggests, “Start by telling them what they are doing. You can say, ‘Mr. A, you are mansplaining to me.’ If that seems to be too direct for you, then a simple, ‘I understand. You do not need to go any further.’”

Mansplaining often begins with a man interrupting a woman and then “mansplaining” the very issue she’s discussing back to her. Women have even experienced a man interrupting as she is presenting data (that she compiled!) and explaining it back to her (like she’s an idiot!).

The Role of Allyship

A big portion of being a good ally is “having a woman’s back,” in the same way you would step up for any colleague. In the situation above, an ally could make the statement, “Can you wait a minute? I want to hear what she has to say.” If the mansplainer continues, an ally can escalate this to a more serious tone such as, “I think we understand what she’s saying. You don’t need to repeat it.” Or you can take a lighter tone and say, “I think we’ve got this. Can we move on?” I also recommend having a conversation with your female colleague following the event to ask if it was okay for you to interject at that point. This is a great conversation starter to discover how you can be a better ally in the future.

Now, let me be clear. Allies are not white knights in shiny armor “saving” a woman who needs to be rescued. Women do not need saving. They simply want equitable treatment, which all employees naturally expect. Unfortunately, the research shows that 64% of women are interrupted or experience microaggressions daily.

If you would like to know if mansplaining is prevalent in your culture, share The HR Digest article and discuss it in your staff meeting. I guarantee that the women on your team know about mansplaining and will be able to tell you exactly what it looks like in your department.

For more on actions allies can take, download 10 Actions for Advocates.

Related articles: