Your deskmate spends a half-hour explaining the ins and outs of “the cloud” to you...a developer. A male coworker pulls you aside to give you a lecture on appropriate workplace attire. A mechanic explains to you how a car works, even though you never asked. You keep trying to talk, but are repeatedly interrupted by one specific person who tries to explain your own ideas.
It’s mansplaining, and it’s not a new phenomenon. It’s a product of cultural norms and gendered socialization, and it shows up in the workplace all the time.
What is mansplaining?
Mansplaining is when a man explains something, usually to a woman, in a condescending or patronizing way.
Best-selling author and design and product executive Kim Goodman identifies three primary characteristics of mansplaining.
1. The other party did not invite or ask for the explanation
So, you asked a male coworker a question or to show you how to do something. The explanation was asked for or invited. Then let the explaining roll on!
However, if the help is unsolicited and/or its coming from someone whom you know knows less about a topic than you, or they answer in a condescending way (more on that next), then we’ve entered the mansplaining zone.
2. Assumptions about competence are being made
Is someone underestimating your skills or knowledge? Underestimating your intelligence and inflating their own is a key characteristic of mansplaining.
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3. Personal bias likely played a role in the interaction
Men and women are conditioned from childhood to think in different ways about themselves and others.
According to a study from Northwestern University, racial and gender biases can appear in children as young as four years old—and those biases follow us through life, coloring our interactions. Another study from the University of Washington found that male science students overwhelmingly rated fellow male students as more knowledgeable, even though class test scores didn’t reflect that fact. And yet another study from Villanova University showed that white people tend to think of light-skinned African American people and Hispanic people as smarter than their darker-skinned peers, despite identical achievements.
All of that to say: Learned bias works against women, and even more so against women of color. It’s certainly not uncommon for women, especially women of color, to be on the receiving end of mansplaining because of the way culture teaches men to behave.
Examples of mansplaining in the workplace
Mansplaining shows up in the workplace all the time, from unwanted tips on your wardrobe to interruptions at meetings.
In a story for the Chicago Tribune, Elly Shariat, founder and CEO of shariatPR, recalled a time when a male coworker pulled her aside not once, but twice, to explain why she should switch her footwear from flats to heels.
Dr. Tasha Stanton, associate professor of clinical pain neuroscience at the University of South Australia, received a comment from a man who told her to “read what Stanton et al found about pain.” She is Stanton.
Other women report incidents like offering a solution to a male manager who then parrots the idea in a meeting and claims it as their own, or a male colleague who spent 45 minutes explaining Excel spreadsheets (incorrectly), or a male electrician who explained what a lightbulb is (yep).
Read more: In Defense of Male Managers
What to say to a mansplainer
You know a mansplainer, so how do you address the situation? You can be friendly, disarming, or outright confrontational. It’s up to you.
Firm, but friendly: A short statement to let the man know you hear him, but his mansplanation is not welcome
I hear you, Matt, but I I have this covered.
Thanks, but I know how to use Google Sheets.
I have a few more points to address, then we can cover your questions.
Good idea. I think I’ll go with my own.
Redirection: Use this opportunity to let someone else speak
Before we cover that, I’d like to hear what Nicole thinks.
I hear your point, Pete, and I’ve been working with Sarah on a solution. She’s better equipped. I’d like for her to address this.
Interesting thought, Kevin. Jada, you mentioned this yesterday. Could you share your idea with the group?
Humor: Call them out with your razor-sharp wit
I didn’t know you knew so much about Russian literature. You should read my book about it if you’d like to know more.
Okay, Steve. You’ll get your chance in the spotlight in a second.
Alright, I’ll pass the sharing stick in a minute. I want to finish my thought.
Confrontation: Call them out on the spot
You don’t need to explain that to me.
Listen, I’m in the middle of talking right now, and I can’t finish with your repeated interruptions.
I’m very familiar with XYZ. I have a degree in it. I’d like your help with ABC instead.
That’s a great idea, Martin. It’s the same one I shared with you yesterday.
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