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Blog Insight & Commentary

There’s a Difference Between Condescension and Advocacy in the Workplace

Yes, "teach people how to treat you" applies here too

Meredith Boe
Contributor

photos of men and women

The workplace revolution for gender equality is far from over. McKinsey & Company’s 2018 Women in the Workplace Study found that, despite rising awareness among employers of gendered inequalities, women still: get less managerial support than men, have less access to senior leadership, face discrimination, face sexual harassment, and face advancement challenges.

The report goes on to explain that while some companies have taken the first steps toward addressing those issues through programming or women-focused initiatives, more concrete action is needed to move the needle.

To give equality the attention it deserves, meaning actionable solutions that will effect change, we need more allies.  And since company policy is still often being made by men in many organizations, it’s crucial for those allies to be male.

Of course, no one wakes up being a perfect ally. Oftentimes, good intentions can go wrong, coming off as condescending rather than supportive. That can be frustrating, but we’re here to help. Here’s some food for thought on how to navigate those eye roll-inducing moments at work.

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Redirect their good intentions

Try to recognize when your male coworkers are at least attempting to be advocates, even if they don’t have it quite right. Then, push them to understand and to refine their efforts to be a true ally.

Say that you’re in a meeting with mostly men, and a man starts to talk over you when you’re trying to make a point. Another male coworker may think that this is his opportunity to stick up for you by interrupting the other guy and making your point for you. 

Or, the boss running the meeting will say something along the lines of…What I think Karen was trying to say there was…

In either case, these men may be trying to help you get your point heard. Unfortunately, they’re silencing you in the process, or they seem to be under the impression they can say it better. 

How can you handle this? In the first instance, thank the thoughtful coworker for stepping in, but insist on finishing your thought. In either situation, be sure to correct anything that the person may have misrepresented.

You could then approach the coworker after the meeting, letting him know that you appreciate his efforts in getting your point heard, but that in the future his helpful comment could look more like, Just a second, I think she was still talking.

Read more: In Defense of Male Managers

These are classic examples of a coworker believing that he is advocating for you while really being kind of condescending, thinking that you can’t handle being interrupted (or even that you can’t communicate properly).

Stand up to mansplaining

If you like to keep the peace at work, it can be hard to stand up to a man when he starts mansplaining—going into way too much detail about a topic that you already know plenty about, thinking he's doing you a service by offering enlightenment. It’s easy to smile and nod and wait until it’s over to go calmly back to your desk and pull your hair out. 

But to help men realize that this is condescending and not usually helpful, point it out. Try asking questions about what he’s saying. Ask things like:

  • What kind of knowledge/expertise they have on the subject

  • What kind of personal experience they have about the topic

  • To listen to what you’re saying before they try to explain something to you

This kind of reaction will help men realize when they’re mansplaining, without you even having to use that word, which could cause some pushback. 

Read more: What Is Intersectional Feminism?

Don’t be condescending back

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that men just don’t know a thing about being female allies. But if you approach your interactions with that mindset, you’re the one that will end up being condescending, giving them a pat on the back and saying, Aw, that’s cute that you tried. But no.

This attitude won’t do much to solve any issues, only perhaps exacerbate them and cause more tension. The idea is not to approach male coworkers with anger, either. Try empathizing with their point of view, even if it’s sometimes hard for you to see. Then make sure your point of view is heard and empathized with as well. That’s important.

There’s a fine line between condescension and advocacy, and although it’s not women’s job to carry the burden of sensitivity training in the office (there is literally a department for that), it is your job, regardless of gender, to teach people how to treat you. Take advantage of opportunities to educate men on how they can truly be our allies. Recognize and kindly redirect good intentions, stand up to mansplaining, and bury that snarky remark at least for the sake of office harmony.

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