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How to keep calm when someone mansplains at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Photo: Getty Images

Back in 2008, author Rebecca Solnit penned an essay titled Men Explain Things to Me - which sparked a debate about “mansplaining” which is still ongoing.

Although she didn’t explicitly use the term, Solnit told an anecdote about a man at a party who tried to explain a “very important” book about 19th century photography to her - without giving her the airtime to explain that she was, in fact, the author of the book. 

Not only is mansplaining infuriating, it is infuriatingly common. The word describes a scenario in which men feel the need to explain something to a woman, even if the woman hasn’t asked for an explanation.

Moreover, the unsolicited advice is often on a topic directly in the woman’s area of expertise - and not at all in the man’s. In some cases, the topic may be about a woman’s own experience and the man wants to explain it to her. 

At some point, nearly all women will have experienced mansplaining - particularly in the workplace. So aside from an eye roll, what should you do if you’re on the receiving end of it? 

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“Mansplaining can be harmful to women because it comes off as extremely condescending, no matter the intentions behind it,” says Samantha Spica, partnerships and communications manager at Fairygodboss, a career community for women. 

One of the key problems is that it involves men making assumptions about a woman’s competence or questioning their expertise.

Although we like to think we treat people fairly, gender bias - whether conscious or not - remains a key issue in the workplace and studies show men often underestimate women’s abilities. 

In 2016, researchers at the University of Washington found that males enrolled in undergraduate biology classes consistently ranked their male classmates as more knowledgeable about course content, even over better-performing female students. 

“When a man mansplains, he reveals a lack of respect for his female co-worker. In addition, he negates any of his female's co-worker's own experiences and neglects the fact that she may have knowledge on the subject at hand,” she adds. “Not only can this impact his female co-worker's confidence, but if overheard or seen by other colleagues, it can also impact how they view that female co-worker as well.” 

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Although it’s tempting to ignore a mansplainer, this only leaves the door open for him to strike again - particularly if they believe they’re being helpful. The first thing to do then, Spica advises, is to try to remain calm and let them know that you weren’t asking for his opinion or explanation. 

“Re-assert your expertise on the subject matter and if the male colleague tries to re-explain, open up a larger conversation with him to discuss how what he said came off as condescending,” she says. 

“It's important to remember that while mansplaining is sometimes done intentionally, a lot of the time it's done subconsciously so having a genuine conversation with a male colleague who mansplains to you is an important way to correct the problem.” 

It’s also worth finding out how much the mansplainer knows about the subject they are explaining to you, too. The case may be that they’re unaware of your own experience. If this is the case, you could politely drop into the conversation that you have a lot of expertise - and you’ll ask for advice if you need it.

‘Mansplainer hotline’

Humour can work too - and help diffuse any impending arguments or protestations. Depending on how well you know the mansplainer, you may want to point them towards blogger Elle Armageddon’s 2015 flowchart Should You Explain The Thing to a Lady? 

To truly rid workplaces of mansplainers, however, structural changes need to be put in place by employers to tackle gender bias. In Sweden, a major union set up a “mansplainer hotline” to allow women to report repeat offenders and receive advice.  

However, this is not a resource available to most people. As an employer, therefore, it’s important to protect staff. If you see a colleague fall victim to mansplaining, don’t be afraid to take the offender to one side and have a polite conversation. 

Although mansplaining may seem like a trivial issue in isolation, but how we communicate with each other is directly linked to how much women feel valued in the workplace.