*By Guest Author Meaghan Webster*
“Am I being oversensitive? Is this something that only I think is happening?”
I have thoughts like these frequently at work – particularly when a male colleague starts to explain a concept to me in great detail, such as the complexity of foreign policy, or the structural organization of the United Nations – not because I don’t want to hear about these things, but because my coworker has assumed I don’t know anything about them, and proceeded to “inform” me without considering that I might actually understand these subjects quite deeply, and maybe I had some insight to offer HIM. By the time he’s finished his “explanation,” I’m too frustrated and exhausted to correct him, so I silently wonder if I’m the only woman to feel this way in the professional world.
It’s not breaking news that women are often disadvantaged in the workplace. However, what IS new is discussion of the less-obvious ways that women are hindered from success at work, sometimes called “subtle sexism.” This often takes the form of “mansplaining” and/or “manterruption.”
“Mansplaining”: “The tendency of men to explain stuff at great length. Often, the men are explaining something they don’t know a lot about, on the assumption that the person they’re talking to knows even less.” “Mansplaining isn't a term for any time a guy tries to explain himself. Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about."
Although it’s been happening for a long time, the term “mansplaining” was first inspired by an essay by author and historian Rebecca Solnit in 2008, in which she described being lectured about a newly published book in her field, by a man who was completely unaware that she had authored the book he was explaining to her. She reflected that mansplaining “makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.”
How are women supposed to demonstrate our expertise and advance our careers when our male colleagues regularly assume, subconsciously or not, that we aren’t knowledgeable about things? This dilemma is amplified by another manifestation of subtle sexism:
“Manterruption”: When “we speak up in a meeting, only to hear a man’s voice chime in louder. We pitch an idea, perhaps too uncertainly – only to have a dude repeat it with authority – which means we shut up, losing our confidence (or worse, the credit for the work). Ask any woman in the working world and we all recognize the phenomenon.”
Research shows that this does not just happen in women’s heads – that in the workplace, “women speak less, are interrupted more, and have their ideas more harshly scrutinized.” Like Solnit explained about mansplaining, “manterruptions” and “bro-opted” ideas (a female’s idea co-opted by a male) subtly train women in self-doubt, making them less likely to chime in and pitch ideas, therefore self-limiting the exact behaviors they should exhibit in order to advance their careers like men do. This drives the confidence gap, a serious career and life inhibitor for women.
High-profile women with well-established expertise are not immune to subtle sexism, either, when they exhibit the same characteristics (such as loud, confident tones) that benefit their male colleagues.
Warren Buffet recently criticized Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’s efforts to regulate Wall Street by complaining that “she would do better if she were less angry and demonized less.” He was referring to her anger at Wall Street banks’ shady actions that led to the 2008 economic recession. How dare she express anger about that, right?
Closer to home, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has commented on how she’s not taken seriously by her male colleagues when discussing technical issues that she in fact knows a lot about, such as the Hanford nuclear site clean up in Washington State, saying that as women, “we have to prove all the time that we do know what we’re talking about.”
Not all men mansplain. In fact, women are capable of “womansplaining,” too. As columnist Jon Carrol (who wrote about curbing his own mansplaining habit) noted, “sometimes the mansplainer is not wrong; he may be the world’s expert on geology, and he’s telling you unassailable facts about igneous rocks. They are just not facts you have asked for.”
In a follow-up piece to her original article, Rebecca Solnit emphasized that “mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the [male] gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.” In other words, the reason it feels so demeaning (and infuriating) to be mansplained at is because someone, regardless of their gender, is treating you like you are less competent or knowledgeable than you know that you are.
How can we overcome these subtle, often subconscious forms of sexism in the workplace?
Women: Don’t undermine your own authority. Think about how you carry yourself and speak at work. Do you start with “I’m not sure if we should do this, but” before suggesting an idea? Do you say “sorry” too much? Do you physically “lean in” at the discussion table like your male colleagues do? Or do you sit back and let them drive? The solution starts with you treating yourself like you’re as intelligent and capable as you are.
Everyone, especially men: challenge your assumptions about how competent or intelligent you think someone is. Intentionally notice and adjust your thoughts and patterns of interaction with women.
Let’s break this bad habit together.
Meaghan Webster works in public policy in Washington, D.C., where she is currently researching energy and natural resource issues. She grew up in Mukilteo, WA and attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, where she developed her passion for social justice issues and gender equality.