America’s most-beloved workplace advice columnist and a man, it’s high time I address the subject of workplace “mansplaining.”
If you aren’t familiar with the term, it describes the all-too-frequent instances when a man explains something to a female co-worker in a condescending manner. It often begins with the man interrupting the woman — “Actually …” — or talking over her, all so he can explain something she already understands.
We see it in politics, in the workplace and in everyday life. Examples of mansplaining are so prevalent that the term has become the subject of regular Internet memes and late-night show punch lines.
But the humor glosses over the fact that, for many, being on the receiving end of a mansplanation can range from annoying to insulting to downright demeaning.
I can already hear the rumblings from a swath of my fellow menfolk: Bah, this is just political correctness! Some people are SO sensitive! It’s a tough world — deal with it!
OK, let’s stop that right now. If you’re too thick or too fragile to consider, even for a moment, that you might be doing something that’s offending the women you work with, then I guess you’ve given up on getting better at your job.
Mansplaining — whether you like the term or not — is real. That’s not up for debate. That doesn’t mean every man who does it is an outright sexist, but it does mean a little awareness of the behavior and the harmful impact it can have might help.
I wanted examples of workplace mansplaining, so I reached out to the masses via social media and received a flood of responses.
One of the first was from Elly Shariat, founder and CEO of shariatPR. In an interview, she recalled a past job in Washington, D.C., with a boss who decided he was an expert on women’s health.
“One time I wore flats and he pulled me aside to explain that flats were actually terrible for my health and that heels were far better and I would develop better calf muscles if I wore heels,” she said. “The first time he said that I kind of laughed and I thought he was joking because it was just such a ludicrous thing to hear. But the next time he pulled me aside and gave me a very stern warning that he had talked to me about the health benefits of wearing heels. I finally found a pair of heels that worked, and I’d wear my flats whenever he wasn’t around.”
The man also had thoughts on her menstrual cycle, and Shariat said his demeaning attitude toward her and other women influenced the way other men in the office behaved.
“It’s pretty demeaning,” Shariat said. “He was a male and he’s trying to talk to me about things he has never experienced. It was kind of a knock to my intelligence. It got to the point where I was questioning myself, and I shouldn’t have been made to feel that way.”
Other people I interviewed gave me their full names, but asked that I use only first names to avoid repercussions at work.
Sara, a business director on the West Coast, has a boss who’s a serial mansplainer. He has a tendency to listen to her ideas and then “explain in intense detail the point that you just made,” as if it were his own.
He once complained because he missed some information she sent via email: “He said, ‘You send it in an email, but there are other ways. You can call me, you can call my office phone, you can call my cellphone, you can text me.’ And I thought, ‘Are you really explaining to me modes of communication right now?’ There was no nuance to it whatsoever. It was like he was giving me new information.”
The problem with this behavior, Sara said, is: “It reinforces the idea in general that men have more knowledge and more power than women. When I was a younger professional I thought it was because I was young, and I always thought that as I get older, people will respect me or respect what I’m saying more. But I found that it never really stopped. You come to realize, ‘Oh, this is because I’m a woman.’”
Ashley, who works in higher education in the Chicago area, described being talked over in male-dominated meetings, ignored by a male tech worker trying (and failing) to fix her work computer and even dealing with a male Uber driver who refused to listen to her directions for the best route to her home.
“I’ve gotten it from people of authority and everyone in between,” Ashley said. “It’s kind of hilarious, but it’s also what we deal with.”
As innocent as this might seem to some men, it’s a slow drip of sexism. It may not be a conscious behavior for some, it may be overt for others.
But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that women in the workplace should not be interrupted when they’re speaking, or made to feel like they should follow male advice on shoes, or treated like they’ve never heard of a telephone.
The solution here, as with most bad workplace behavior, is to stop and think. Before you cut off a female colleague or launch into an explanation of something that needs no explanation, ask yourself: Am I about to mansplain?
It takes all of three seconds to do that. Complain all you want about “PC culture” or “men’s rights,” or gripe about how you’re “just being a straight shooter,” blah blah blah.
Here’s the bottom line, guys: If three seconds keeps you from demeaning a co-worker and makes you less of a jerk, that’s three seconds well-spent.
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Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.