7 July 2018

Front Line

A career management briefing for
visionary women

Emails that make you fall off your chair

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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Dare to ask for help

Summer’s rolled around, and all too fast for many of us. August with its holidays and lull in business is upon us. For those among us who might be described as workaholics - or more euphemistically - ‘over-engaged’ people, this period can only be compared to the discomfort of the winter holidays when everything more or less shuts down for a few weeks. If not already at the beginning, by the middle of these holidays, we’re twiddling our thumbs and excitedly awaiting the beginning of business-as-usual.

What is this downtime good for then? Asking for help. This is somewhat antithetical and out of character for most of us. We had to fight to prove our mettle, less was expected of us than we achieved, or we learned to value ourselves for what we achieved rather than for who we were. Asking for help can feel like we can’t do something by ourselves (#fail), it may make us feel like we’ll be exposed for what we haven’t managed to learn or work out yet (#fail), or it can put us in a position where we open ourselves up for rejection, which on some level may be very hurtful (#fail). With so many ‘fails’, asking for help is simply something we don’t do. More so, for many of us, our ability to achieve without relying on others is our MO.

The above said, and with much due respect for what it took to get you where you are now, imagine if you had a team who were focused on pushing you to your best. This is what new mentors can become. Invested in your success, often they’ll seek to introduce you to people who they think can support your career trajectory. Equally, as allies, they may help create opportunities for your initiatives and business to flourish. With some time and authentic relationship-building, inviting new mentors in your life can mark the beginning of a new chapter, both professionally and personally. If you're daunted by the prospect of inviting mentors into your life, consider ‘breaking down the mandate’: work out where you most need help to thrive, and ask for support there.

If you don’t have any mentors, and struggle to think of how to approach this, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’ll be happy to help you work out how to get some great mentors onboard.

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There’s a time for rest

If you’ve been pedal to the metal in your job search, now through August offers a moment to take a break. It’s easy to feel ‘go go go’ when you're looking for a new job, particularly when you’re in a negative situation or hostile work environment. However, few employers are recruiting during the height of summer. This a time to shift your focus to other priorities in your professional and personal life. Think of this as a moment to reflect, to re-focus, and to make sure that everything is in place to push your career to the next level when the hiring market becomes more active again.

Even world-class athletes need moments to recharge. Regardless of whether you have performed well enough to ‘merit’ a break, not much is moving in the job market in the next 7 weeks. Take a break and give yourself what you need to perform well in the next sprint come 27 August.

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We help leaders and founders create successful careers and companies. #leadership #WorkplaceCulture #CareerManagement

Arieli & Company

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