Imagine this: a prospective client calls you and then proceeds to ‘educate’ you about the building blocks of what you do. It’s a bit like telling J. M. W. Turner or Le Corbusier that light matters, or letting the people at Rosetta Stone know that English is an important global language.

This phenomenon, for better or worse, is called mansplaining. Although the term refers to men explaining things in a condescending or patronising way to women, it references a wider phenomenon where members of a privileged class assume that others don’t really have a clue or need extra help understanding things. A particularly special category belongs to men in academia, to which an entire Tumblr is devoted (“Academic Men Explain Things To Me”).

How does it feel to be at the receiving end of this kind of presumptuous behaviour? Infuriating, hurtful, irritating, insulting, undermining, confusing… these are just a few of the emotions that might come up. Equally, you may simply be left speechless.

What do you do when this happens? Our first piece of advice: do nothing, take a step back, and do what you need to to ‘find your Zen’ again.

The next step is not so clear cut. In the current climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp, there is the temptation to say something to put a stop to this, quite frankly, ridiculous behaviour. On the other hand, in reality, a lot of women still stay schtum. You don’t want to sour a relationship that could be useful, or to be too quick to judge a guy who has unconsciously stumbled into biased territory (#EmpathyKick). More strategically, you don't want to risk any kind of retaliation, or to get a reputation for being a troublemaker of any kind. It’s hard enough trying to make it to the top without kicking dust in the eyes of those who could put in a good word in for you, or with whom you need to keep a good working relationship.

There are two pivotal questions that our female clients find useful to work out what response feels right for them:

  1. What’s the cost to you - or what matters to you - if you say nothing? Typically, the cost for our female clients is about whether you generally stay quiet and what that symbolises for you in terms of not standing up yourself (or for what matters to you). Those who choose to say something usually have been held back by a particular, less competent, male colleague for far too long. Here, saying something is about finally stepping forward and it can be a highly empowering act. On the other hand, our female clients who choose to ‘stay quiet’ usually have a plan to ‘redress the balance’ at a later stage in their career. Here, saying nothing is about making a strategic move, where a future payoff in their favour is fairly certain: they will make it further than this male counterpart, and they can get by on the anticipated one-upmanship and what this guy/person will feel when they realise who she is, or when she is above them and he needs a favour or connection from her.

  2. The second question is: What could it mean for your career development if you piss this guy off? Sure, whether or not a guy is pissed off shouldn’t determine how your career progresses. But, in reality, we see that if you aren’t in favour with the ‘right people’, your career progresses much more slowly, if at all. There is a lot of talk about progression and gender equality, but there’s still a long way to go. (In this way, perhaps the current discourse and the empowerment it belies is a disfavour to women #discuss.) You want to upset the established order? Know what you’re getting in for before you tackle ‘the beast’. As psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum puts it when she talks about race: if you really want to change a system that consistently privileges one group of people over another, you need to get off of the conveyer belt you and they are on, and consciously and decisively walk in the other direction.

There is no fixed answer to this, just as no two individuals or situations are the same. It comes down to what the affront of mansplaining means to you, and what your response means for your career development and effectiveness as a leader. At its most essential the question is: how can you best support yourself to achieve what you are truly capable of?

Leaving this post, we share with you our favourite instances of mansplaining (and privileged-explaining):

  • On wine: “If you are looking for Grüner Veltliner, you’ll love Gewürtztraminer.” Err, do you know ANYTHING about different grape varieties?
  • On parking: a male stranger inspects your ‘park’ when you finish, just to check you’ve done it right
  • On race: “But black people are really good at dancing and singing. Why not do that? It must feel weird to be at Oxford University.” There’s so much wrong with this, where do we start?!
  • On gender and sexuality: “I was friends with gay people when I was in Dublin. I’m so happy to have met you!” - and you’re happy to have substituted me in for that identical “gay person”? N.B. We're not all the same person

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