This is not a post only for women to read and smile ruefully. It's also for men to read and have an aha moment, or just understand a little better what they kind of suspect, but will never experience. I’m assuming some lack of awareness is involved, because I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings and that therefore any behavior that is disrespectful, downright infuriating and has a long term impact on other people's self esteem must be entirely unintended.
Let me be clear that absolutely #notallmen are mansplainers. I have coached, worked alongside, for, and as the leader of, many incredible owners of both a Y chromosome and a deep respect for women.
They have never explained back to me what I have just said myself.
Or told me that I might think that, but actually the truth is very different when I know damn well what I'm talking about.
They have never spoken patronizingly to me, somehow missing the fact that as well as 20+ years of experience, I have a slew of qualifications that won't fit on my business card.
They have never chimed in after I have made a point, essentially restating my own words as if they needed to be rehashed to be intelligible to the room.
Nor have they, on the other side, heard another gentleman restate my words and congratulate him on his genius while I sit wondering... Did I dream that I said exactly the same thing, but first?
But in the last year I have realized how abnormal my career has been.
Apparently in stark contrast to many women I've spoken with, I have, for much of my working life, been treated as an equal by my male counterparts. By which I don't mean I have the key to shattering the glass ceiling. If I'd cracked the code to that sledgehammer, I'd be on my private island packing my Birkin bag for my trip on the first civilian trip into space.
But I do know that I have seldom had a problem having my voice heard.
Having spent much of my career as a foreigner, having a British accent has no doubt helped. Maybe because it takes a while to work out what I just said with those weird vowels of mine. Or that I speak at roughly half the decibels of my American colleagues (I love you, American colleagues, but you're so loud <3) so am frequently asked to SAY THAT AGAIN? Or that the stereotype of the bossy Mary Poppins-style British nanny lives on. Hang on, as we all know, only women can be "bossy", so let's reword that to "childcare professional with leadership skills". And the Alan Rickman-style villain is still very much part of the perception: why do all movie villains still have Home Counties accents?
I'm sure the fact that you don't have to know me for very long to know that I'm not going to tolerate any nonsense helps as well. The people who know me reading this are now chuckling, I'm sure.
I was raised to speak up for myself, but more importantly, to speak up for the people who can't (or won't) do it for themselves. One of my former colleagues once told me that I frequently said the things he was thinking but didn't say. Which is not to say that I am some opinionated old trout who can't keep her mouth shut. Just that I don't have the patience for dancing around the issues. I would rather get things out in the open and have a conversation with a resolution, than pretend to be "aligned" (yes, I still hate that word) and fester in a corner.
And I am very aware of the fact that I am White and can only begin to understand the advantages that that gives me over a Woman of Color. I have spoken about this subject to a number of women who have no choice but to experience it first hand, and know that in the great card game of life, it's a huge privilege I've been dealt that I am only beginning to appreciate and not take for granted.
To my undying dismay, having their say, being listened to, feeling respected, and even allowed to finish their damn thought before being interrupted, is not something that many women I know can say they consistently experience.
And, based on my highly forensic analysis of... talking to women that I have in my network or coach... it has got worse during our pandemic Zoom culture. It seems like that mute button that doesn't exist in real life, where who is talking, about what, when is somehow less of a minefield to navigate, is something of a false friend.
So, with my belief in my responsibility to speak up for those who can't, on behalf of those women, let me explain how it feels to be mansplained to.
It chips away at your self esteem - because what am I doing wrong that I have to be publicly corrected? Have I said something really dumb?
It feels demoralizing, like what I have to say doesn't count for as much. Because if it has to be re-explained and only then is it deemed enough, by default my version can't be up to scratch.
It feels like outrage, like maybe I want to punch a wall. Because - I JUST SAID THAT so why is someone else getting the credit?!
It feels dismissive. You don't even care enough about my opinion to let me finish what I have to say?
It feels like utter disrespect. Quieting your own voice when someone else talks is a universal sign of - you deserve to be heard. So talking over someone else is exactly the opposite.
If you are a guy and reading this scratching your head thinking, well no woman has ever said this to me, I'm sure you're right. I'm not going to... womansplain to you and say "you might think that but it's not true" because I respect you enough to assume that you know your own truth. And one of the things that women will admit about themselves is that they are a lot more likely to feel hurt and fester in a corner than speak up. We tend to think it shouldn't be that hard to work out what's going on in our heads, so do we really have to explain? The answer is yes you do, but that's a different blog post.
It's usually easier to recognise the symptoms than the disease. So if you see the women in your organization acting in these ways, then maybe there's more to it than you thought.
Silent in meetings, but open in informal team settings. Women are much more likely to take being shot down more personally than men, rolling up in a ball and thinking, I won't be trying that again. Informal settings are much less threatening.
Unresponsive to "any comments, feedback, thoughts?" After being talked over or ignored enough times, women get to the "really, what's the point?" stage. If you don't care enough to listen to what I have to say, I'm not going to bother saying it.
Resentful or disengaged. To grossly generalise, women are much more likely to seethe if they feel like they're being dismissed than to tackle the issue head on. Nice girls don't have confrontations.
What do these things have in common? They don't just have an impact on the individual, they have an impact on the team and on the business they work on. After all, it's diversity of thought that creates the best innovation, the best solutions to problems, the best plans to go out and execute. You don't get access to thought if half the room is unwilling to share them.
I work with women all the time on growing the confidence to use their voice and release their own inner Mary Poppins, so that they don't feel so defeated (a word I hear so often it dismays me). But how about we turn the tables and do something about the cause, not just deal with the effect and sweep up after the elephant (a phrase I learned last week and LOVE)? With my faith in the goodness of people, I know that we all want to tackle this problem, it's just that some of us don't know it exists. Right?
First of all, ask yourself if you, or the people around you have ever been guilty of the mansplaining behavior I explained. If the answer is... maybe, that's OK. Now you're enlightened, build your awareness. Try to take an objective view of the interactions you're in. Once you're conscious and attuned to something, you're going to find it easier to spot.
Now comes the slightly harder part. Harder, but not that hard. There's nothing radical here. Just act like a respectful human, the way you would want to be treated yourself.
Don't talk over a woman who's already talking. I don't mean, never challenge, debate or disagree with what she has to say. That's the point of meetings, after all, to get all the opinions on the table and so get to the best decisions. Just wait until she's actually had the chance to make her point before you state your counterargument.
Don't flat out ignore what she has to say, acknowledge it. Acknowledgment is one of the easiest but most powerful communication tools we have. Because it shows you respect the other person enough to listen. But please note that acknowledge doesn't mean, explain to her what she really meant (see next point).
Before you feel the need to explain back or reword to a woman what she's just said, critically ask yourself why and what you're hoping to gain from it. If you want to make sure you understood, great. If the answer is anything else, you should probably just stay quiet.
By all means push back, disagree, poke at what she has to say if there are holes in it. Nobody is asking for kid gloves treatment. But please bear in mind that workplace disagreements are disproportionately more about matters of opinion, not about facts. Which should really make the deeply emotive and reaction-provoking words "right" and "wrong" null and void, there is no such thing as a right or wrong opinion.
Finally, be conscious of who said what first. Don't offer up praise to a man who simply repeats what a woman has said like it's his own thought. I know it's asking a lot because I honestly don't think any guy thinks that he participates in this behavior in any way. It's probably deeply unconscious. But it happens, so try pushing it to your consciousness.
Women aren't looking for special treatment. None of us want to be pandered to, or for our male colleagues to feel like they can't speak for offending us, or for them to be so scared of saying the wrong thing that every conversation becomes an awkward dance around the topic.
We want the chance to contribute, because we want to make a difference. Hear us out. Who knows, you might learn something.