I am a mansplainer. In the hopes of enlightening readers of all genders as they interact in the workplace, I’ll examine how I got that way, why I mansplained, and my path to reform.
First off, let me explain my background, because it matters in this discussion. I was raised in a moderately affluent suburb of Philadelphia; my parents were a college chemistry professor and a well-educated homemaker. They reinforced my desire to succeed academically, and I did. I went to high school and college in the 70s, a time when the sexual revolution had cracked the shell on rigid gender roles, but the idea of women’s equality and accomplishment, while attractive in theory, hadn’t yet made things much easier for accomplished women.
My time in college and graduate school reinforced in me the idea that I had a superior intellect. I was an elite student in a respected field — mathematics. By the time I entered the working world I had a towering ego and sense of superiority, even though as an actual worker I knew nothing at all.
But put the ego aside for a moment.
Teachers and professors shaped my experience in high school and college — I looked up to them, including my father. In graduate school I taught calculus, including a memorable summer in which I taught a class of naval engineering students far older than me. My first boss hired me because she needed a person with a math background who could write clearly about equations and their application, and I rapidly became a resource for others who needed help with those topics. So I learned to lecture.
Writing non-fiction is explaining. As a technical writer and manager, I became a professional explainer. As I look back on my work, I see now that explaining is what I do. I’m good at it, people value it, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
Explainer or mansplainer?
So that all explains why I am an explainer. By why a mansplainer? A mansplainer is a man who continues to explain things to women, even though the women know about those things and may understand them better than the man does. It also implies an element of condescension — that the man acts as if he is of course smarter than the woman to whom he is explaining things. It’s frustrating to be the subject of a lecture when you are smarter than the person lecturing.
In Rebecca Solnit’s formulation, a mansplainer must have a combination of “overconfidence and cluelessness.” To be a mansplainer, you must have the following:
- A feeling that you are smarter than your audience.
- An insensitivity to how the audience is reacting — that is, you miss the cues that you’re being offensive.
- A prejudice that women are less smart than men.
OK, let’s take that apart. My background reinforced in me the feeling that I was smarter. And I was much better at talking than listening. I think that for the first few decades of my career, I was pretty bad at picking up on cues from anyone. So I hit the first two criteria squarely.
I don’t think that I’m prejudiced against women thinkers. I have encountered so many smart women in my career. Dena Brody, my first boss, was someone I instantly admired and hoped to emulate when I became a manager. I also think about women I’ve worked closely with, including Myrna Jacobs (the woman I hired to run the department I built at one startup), Mary Modahl (the VP who hired me at Forrester), Charlene Li (the coauthor of my first book), Kerry Bodine (the coauthor of Outside In, which I edited), and Carrie Fanlo (who rose from entry-level research associate to SVP of Research at Forrester). I am in awe of the skill of these women; I have learned from them and consider my friendship and collaborations with them as some of the highlights of my career. I cannot imagine mansplaining anything to any one of them.
That said, I have to admit I am a product of my time. While things were not quite as bad in the 80s and 90s and 00s as they were in the “Mad Men” era, men at work in those times were prone to considering women, not just as colleagues, but from a sexual perspective. I cannot imagine the challenges of a woman succeeding in an environment where she must deal with that.
The analyst paradigm
I spent 20 years of my life as a Forrester analyst. And I was pretty good at it.
The job of the analyst is to learn as much as possible about a particular field, to study it, to conduct primary research about it, and then to write about it and explain (yes, explain) what is happening and what is going to happen. People pay a lot of money for those insights.
The analyst’s interactions with the rest of the world demand a certain attitude, and if you are a mansplainer, the job will reinforce those tendencies.
Your non-analyst colleagues hold you up to the world as an icon of knowledge and reinforce the idea that you know things that others do not.
Technology vendors large and small brief you with the implicit assumption that winning your approval is crucial to their success. To them, you are an influencer. So they reinforce the idea that your knowledge of the market is superior.
Clients ask you to speak to them about strategy. They assume that your knowledge will help them. They expect you to know everything. To meet their expectations, it helps to act as if you know everything.
The press calls and asks for your opinion, then quotes you in the paper, on the radio, or on television as an expert.
There is no sexism inherent in this, only a feeling of intellectual superiority. While there are more men than women in the corps of analysts, there are plenty of accomplished women analysts as well. And some male analysts are less arrogant than others. But if you’re already arrogant, this job is going to reinforce that.
Analysts also need to listen — you’re not going to learn much about a changing market unless you can listen. They also meet with some impressive people. In my time as an analyst I interacted with Bill Gates, Mark Andreessen, Mark Zuckerberg, and the CEOs or Presidents of NBC, ABC, CBS, News Corp., Discovery, and many other Fortune 500 companies. You don’t get far being arrogant with people like that. Even so, in most interactions, you are supposed to be the smart one, and you’d better act like it.
What I’ve learned since starting on my own
I am no longer a widely respected analyst. I am a small businessman and author of a moderately selling book. Behaving like I know everything is no longer an option.
I am still an explainer, just as I was when I was teaching calculus. But I see things differently.
For one thing, nobody is going to hire you unless you listen. So I have gotten much better at picking up cues, listening, and respecting what other people are doing and what they know. If you want to write a book and I want to help you, I need to respect the knowledge you have in your area of expertise. My knowledge is about writing and publishing, but that’s worth nothing without your ideas.
It was heady being at the top of all that respect and adulation, but I’m enjoying this a lot more. I’m having more equal relationships with people and enjoying listening to them. My ego is now in a normal-sized box. So I’m an explainer, but not from a position of superiority. To do my job, I need a lot more empathy about what other writers are going through.
I’ve learned a little about gender in the workplace. My editor (a woman) and her boss (a woman) encouraged me to look into the challenges of women writing in the workplace, and I wrote about that on the blog and in my book. I’m quite insecure and uncomfortable talking about it, because I feel like a man mansplaining the challenges of women in the workplace, but it’s part of the challenge of writing, and therefore part of what I speak about. I’m still learning.
So I guess I am a recovering mansplainer.
To all the women whose ideas I didn’t listen to sufficiently . . . I apologize. It has taken many decades, but I think I am listening better and mansplaining less now.
Advice for mansplainers and their victims
If you are a man reading this — especially if you are a smart and accomplished man — consider that you may be a mansplainer.
If you are open to change, make a vow to listen more and talk less when you are in conversation with a woman or in a meeting. You may actually learn something. You may score more points by listening than you could by talking. And you’re more likely to get the support of the women in the room.
If a woman articulates an idea that you like, reinforce it before you build on it. Say “I like Sally’s idea,” before you embellish it and attempt to make it your own.
I’m not going to tell you to stop interrupting people — especially women — because that’s probably an impossible habit to break. But you could at least attempt to give the women you have interrupted a chance to finish their thoughts.
If you are in a senior position, consider how you might change your corporate culture to encourage more listening and less mansplaining. And model that behavior yourself.
Stop watching cable news and imagining that that’s an appropriate model for discourse. It’s not.
Find a woman you admire and trust, and humbly ask her advice about how you interact with women. Then listen a lot and talk sparingly. Think about what you are hearing.
For the women reading this (and admitting the risk that I am mansplaining once again), I have some advice as well.
Interrupt. That may not be your nature, but it may be the only chance you have of being heard.
Engage on an intellectual level. Some men are pigs who you’ll never win over — I hope there are very few of those in your career. But many will respond intellectually to an intellectual argument. Logic and facts will help you, because logic and facts have no gender.
And if a man seems receptive to learning about himself, please take the opportunity to educate him (gently, if possible) about what an ass he is being. You may be able to make someone better, as the women I worked with have improved me. This is not your responsibility — its ours — but those among us who are reflective about ourselves will be grateful.
How to make things better — don’t behave like an ass
It’s not easy to write about what an ass I used to be. I’m sure that some of my readers — and perhaps some of my former colleagues — will be angry at what I have described. I hope that you can accept this confession in the spirit in which I offered it, as a penance and an invitation to create insight and dialogue.
Regarding the discussion that will follow, I want to be clear about this:
I will, as always, delete any personal attacks in the comments. If you are angry at what I have written, that’s fine, but there’s no place for name-calling directed at me or at other commenters. This blog is a place for civil discourse.
If, however, you want to describe your own experiences, contribute to the discussion, criticize my advice, or offer your own, I’d be grateful. Gender bias has made workplace interactions less effective. If you think you can help change that, I welcome your views.