In the past few years, there’s been some high-profile cases of mansplaining, including for example an episode of Project Greenlight, when Matt Damon ‘explained’ diversity to a black female producer, Effie Brown. But, of course, most instances of mansplaining don’t make the global news and can be interpreted as being subtle. They can vary from unsolicited interruptions to unasked-for explanations that often have the women on the receiving end wondering if they’re actually being patronized, or if they’re simply being overly sensitive. We encounter these quiet and subtle versions of mansplanations every day and, though they may not seem like a big deal in the moment, they have a real effect on how women move and operate in the world.
But why has mansplaining become a phenomenom so widely discussed in various TV shows? We can all agree that most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with men explaining things. If someone, regardless of gender, doesn’t know or understand something, and a man does, then by all means, he should be able to explain it! Men can absolutely explain things to women and also to other men without it being offensive. And women can explain things to men, and to other women, and basically anyone can explain anything to anyone else. Explanations are great!
But here’s what makes mansplaining different from the situation described above: when a man mansplains something to a woman, he often interrupts or speaks over her to explain something that she already knows and may already be an expert on. What’s more, this is done on the assumption that he must know more than she does. In many cases, the explanation has to do specifically with things that are unique to women — their bodies, their experiences, their health (including especially reproduction choices), or their lives. When men interrupt or presume to correct a woman who is speaking of her own experience or expertise, they are implying that she is ignorant, that she is incapable of having authoritative knowledge. They are saying, essentially, “Shh. I know it better.”
Although women certainly can interrupt and speak over another person in ways that are inappropriate (and men can certainly interrupt other men inappropriately, too), mansplaining is a particularly gendered issue, arising from a culture that implicitly values men’s voices over women’s. That is not to say that all men mansplain or if they do, do so on purpose. However, various studies show that women are interrupted more than men and men dominate in almost all professional settings.
Ultimately, everyone’s experience will vary, however, I wanted to share some examples on how mansplaining found its way into our everyday life.
Many of us have experienced a dynamic of being explained about our experience as a woman. We say something to a man about what it’s like to be a woman in the world, or touch on sexism, and then he swiftly shuts us down. Men are very welcome to talk about women and sexism and feminism, and their gender certainly shouldn’t disqualify them from making points on these subjects. But when they declare the lived experiences of women invalid, it’s mansplaining.
There are also certain fields that are traditionally dominated by men, and there are some women who might feel comfortable in these areas, and some who don’t. Whatever our level of expertise may be, we are entitled to voice our questions and concerns, without being treated like an ignorant child.
An example is being told whether or not we will like something. If someone who knows you well says you’ll like something, that’s usually useful information to have. But when a stranger or acquaintance demands that you try something because he knows that you’ll like it (or not like it), it’s rude and often very invasive. It can be anything, from a type of food you are reluctant to try to a book that you are positively certain you won’t enjoy reading.
Another common example is when a man tries to explain to you your field of expertise. This situation often occurs in the work place, in the context of various project and team meetings. Being “educated” about a topic you clearly know more about than your colleague is extremely frustrating because the mansplainer is usually assuming you know less than you do because of your gender. Hands up if you’ve referred to as being a “young lady” in the workplace? Society should be meritocratic which means that age or gender should not affect someone’s right to have an opinion.
We can even encounter very gender stereotypical behaviour in our small social circles. “The men will go on the terrace to smoke cigars and we shall leave ladies to their gossips” – we can often hear this phrase in many social settings. Nothing makes me more unhappy than the assumption that all men will want to smoke on the terrace and all the girls will want to stay to gossip (and usually help with cleaning up, which is somehow always left to the ladies). There is no tenderness in this approach, rather contempt and assumption that the ladies will enjoy neither a cigar nor the conversation. It also belittles women’s contribution to a discussion as mere gossip.
Recognize it and stop
In most modern cultures, women are taught to be polite people-pleasers that are expected to prioritise the needs of others over our own rights to speak freely or even exist in a space without harassment or attack based on our beliefs. It seems that the phrase “children should be seen and not heard” is more frequently used with young girls because society accepts that “boys will be boys”.
To stop this unfriendly behavior, we need to first be able to recognise it. Is someone simply being rude, or a giving us a condescending and often unsolicited explanation based on gender.
The next step is to stop it.
This prevalence of mansplaining is deeply rooted in the entitlement men feel in taking more time to talk in most professional settings. Women on the contrary have a tendency to apologise for speaking: “I’m not sure if this is right, but—”, or use words like “just” or “maybe”. Women tend to self-censor, men take space. It’s almost as if men are rewarded for their volume, while women are afraid of a backlash.
Instead, don’t make allowances by questioning yourself: speak authoritatively and take control of the situation. And whatever you do, don’t apologize before you speak. As women, we should all be supporting one another and so in the work environment, if you hear an idea from a woman that you think is good, back her up and give credit when it’s due.
If all else fails, you can always learn how to talk really, really loud.