Chances are you don’t even know you are doing it. Mansplaining is a real thing. It is a behavior traditionally gender socialized by men that can be described as talking down to women, or over or under explaining when communicating with women.
Have you heard or said this before?
“I will explain it to you later, you don’t understand.”
“This is really complex, let me explain”….droning on…
This is mansplaining.
We’ll break down this unhelpful behavior and help you understand what it is, what to do when you notice it, and clever callout conversations you can easily have that make this potentially uncomfortable conversation more comfortable.
So, what is mansplaining?
Let’s introduce the concept with an analogy. Think art. As an appreciator, yet not a creative type, the art world has always eluded me. How can two people look at the same piece and see two starkly different things? That is because the intention of the artist often differs from the perception of viewer. Perception is reality.
Same goes for conversations between men and women. Often, we are creating perceptions that we may not want to be creating. When conversations are dominated by men, where women are interrupted, or their ideas are dismissed, women stop engaging. When men explain experiences, problems, and solutions without regard to the fact that the female audience knows more than the male explainer, women become more focused on the explainer’s lack of self-awareness. Women stop listening, they stop participating, and they withdrawal from the team. And, as leaders we are not getting the best ideas and input from our teams.
There is nothing more primal for humans (except food, water, and shelter) than to feel a sense of belonging. When men mansplain, women do not feel they fit or belong. Women may comply in the short-term with what was communicated, but the resentment of not being heard or valued manifests itself in long-term disengagement. This often leads to lower performance, and often, negative turnover.
How do we shift this behavior?
First, ask yourself…are you the right messenger for the information being shared?
While your intention may be sincere and supportive, if the context isn’t appropriate, then perhaps you and the audience would be better served by having a more representative voice deliver the message. For example, let’s say a new program focused on mentoring and sponsoring women within the organization is being launched. Since there would most definitely be at least one woman on the leadership team, she should be the face and voice of the new initiative. Women want to hear from successful women who are seen as influencers and have been promoted into roles where their input and leadership is respected by senior peers. When communicating opportunities around the new initiative, both internally and externally, the announcement and follow up information should come from her. If a male elects to be the spokesperson, the perception of the initiative may be quite similar to this sentiment, “leadership still doesn’t get it.” Why put yourself and your organization in such a self-defeating situation?
Clever callout conversations
The best way to address mansplaining is through clear, crisp feedback. As women, we often sugar coat our feedback (generalization warning). Yet, men respond to direct feedback. As with any feedback, a few key decisions affect the success.
- Decide whether do privately 1:1, or publicly in the moment. In the moment is often best with tact, yet with emotions and egos, privately may be appropriate. Know your audience and adjust to what setting you think will facilitate listening.
- Make sure to cite specific behaviors. This may be lack of listening, interrupting, or talking down to the audience. Keep it from sounding personal. It is about the behavior, not the person as a whole. Protect the ego.
- Recognize the negative impact it is having on the team. In many cases, mansplaining fails to get the point across, leads to loss of respect, and results in retaliatory behavior. Passive aggressive cultures tend to be ones where mansplaining thrives.
When you are called on it, listen rather than defend
Often, I hear feedback from men and women that “It is just another emotional woman” or “he was just trying to help out” or “this is a woman’s problem.” I assure you this is not the case. Men empower women when they that share the spotlight, and when to listen to women, without jumping in with solutions or placating them by overeducating them, empower women. Male allies listen to understand rather than defend their behavior. Active listening is the best tool to combat this behavior.
If you are fortunate enough to get feedback that is synonymous with mansplaining, embrace it. You are lucky someone cares enough about you, and the women around you, to share that with you. It is often very difficult for women or male peers to call out mansplaining behavior. First, tell yourself, I am lucky someone cares about me to share this feedback, and then listen. This is not listening to respond, but genuinely pausing to hear what is being said.
The good news is that if you are part of the problem, you can be a part of the solution. Some clever callouts I like are:
- “When you said x, what did you mean?”
- “When you explained x it sounded condescending. I realize you probably did not mean to say it that way. I would rephrase it next time to y.”
- “Let me share something with you. I heard you say x, I know you have good intentions, yet it was perceived to be y. What would you do differently next time?”
Male allies and women leaders out there, now is the time to have this candid conversation. If mansplaining happens in your organization, drive positive change through awareness of the behavior, providing feedback, shifting the behaviors to promote equality and inclusion.
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