- Talent Management
If you’re a woman, you likely already know what “mansplaining” is, because it is pervasive and damaging. Simply put, it happens when a man of any age decides to explain something, usually at length, that either does not require an explanation or is painfully obvious. Worse-case scenarios mansplaining happen when men who know very little take it upon themselves to explain something to women who know a lot.
In the recently released film, Hidden Figures, based on a book by the same title, mansplaining is represented at length. Hidden Figures tells the story of the African American women mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s and helped the United States win the space race. As one might expect, the women at the center of Hidden Figures were subject to excessive mansplaining throughout their careers, since most of their male colleagues simply assumed that they couldn’t possibly know anything about mathematics, though that is why they were employed by NASA in the first place.
While one might assume that mansplaining in the workplace was brought under control by the 1970s when the feminist movement started to transform the workplace, in fact, it remains live and well. Women interviewed for this article reported widespread mansplaining in various workplaces. “I’m a university professor and yes, even when I’m teaching first-year courses, I always have boys, just out of high school, attempting to explain key concepts in my field to me during my lectures! It’s totally ridiculous, but someone has taught them that this is acceptable,” explains Dr. Chris Steadman, a professor of psychology who also has her own clinical practice. Dr. Candice Stein, an emergency room doctor, has had similar experiences with interns: “I’ve been supervising interns for decades, but I always have one or two young men telling me how to do things in the ER…this fall, one actually told me that I should do something differently because he had seen it done that way on Grey’s Anatomy! Can you believe it?”
Like it or not, mansplaining appears to be a global phenomenon but in some nations, it is considered a grave enough problem to bring in frontline support. In Sweden, long known for its progressive politics on gender, the nation’s largest union recently established a mansplaining hotline (albeit only on a temporary basis). The hotline encouraged women to call when male colleagues gave them unsolicited and patronizing lectures on topics they already fully understood. While the main point was to curtail mansplaining, the union noted that mansplaining, which can prevent women from speaking up, can also negatively impact women’s advancement in the workplace and therefore, negatively impact equal pay. But did the hotline work?
At least one call center operated reported,“Many of our calls are from men who talk for a very, very long time. It blocks the line, and makes it impossible for other people to come forward.” However, a spokesperson from the union that started the hotline explained that many of the men who called were in fact looking for help on how to stop mansplaining. Whether or not one has the resources to start a hotline, the good news is that every organization can address the mansplaining problem.
As widely reported over the past twenty-four months, women continue to lag behind men in many industries, including the high-tech industry. Indeed, even once women are hired, they often fail to receive the promotions given to their male colleagues and there is growing evidence that promotional decisions are often deeply impacted by culture rather than performance. By creating a culture where mansplaining is tolerated, organizations create a culture where it is considered acceptable for male employees to condescend to women, regardless of their age, knowledge or experience. The flip-side of the coin is that in such workplaces, women who do speak up are often perceived to be taking up too much space or considered too masculine or aggressive, and this too can hurt their chances of being promoted in a timely manner.
While there is no one way to fix the mansplaining phenomenon–and as demonstrated during the 2016 election, no reason to conclude that even the most excessive mansplaining will hurt one’s chances of succeeding–there is a growing awareness that from the classroom to the boardroom, it is a gender equity issue that deserves direct attention.
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