Managing the "Mansplain" at Work

Rebecca Solnit aptly captured the essence of the “Mansplain” experience in her essay entitled, “Men Explain Things to Me” (2008).  Solnit described a time when she had been mansplained, or interrupted by a man, who then went on to explain the meaning of a book to her without acknowledging that she, in fact, had written it.  In response to her essay, the “mansplain” quickly became a cultural phenomenon, as it resonated with the experiences of women throughout the country who were frequently interrupted or condescended to by their male colleagues.

So how can we, as women, respond effectively to the mansplain?  As cognitive behavioral psychologists, we recognize that a woman’s internal experience of the “mansplain” has the power to exert tremendous influence over what she believes, says, and does, therefore impacting her professional identity. Let’s imagine, for example, that you’ve just begun to share an innovative idea during a weekly brainstorming meeting, only to be interrupted by a male colleague, who goes on to expand upon the same idea and take credit for it.  Although there are many possible reactions to this experience, below are three possible thought processes that may emerge for a woman in the face of this “mansplain:”

1. “I can’t challenge him, because the fact that he did that probably means I AM inferior.”

The gravest risk to a woman’s professional identity occurs when, in the moment she has been interrupted or dismissed, she becomes silenced beneath the chatter of her own self-doubt. This woman tends to personalize her colleague’s behavior because it resonates with an underlying fear of incompetence or failure that she harbors about herself. After all, she might think: why else would my colleague have had the audacity to mansplain to me? Behaviorally, the repercussions may be significant, as she may silence herself in meetings going forward, becoming complicit in the mansplain.  One way to address these kinds of issues in therapy may be to support this woman in challenging the unhelpful beliefs and fears that she carries about herself.  In turn, this woman may begin to experiment with advocating for herself at work, thereby utilizing more self-affirming strategies for collaborating effectively with colleagues on group projects. 

2. “I want to challenge him, but is it worth risking my professional reputation?”

A different woman may be able to depersonalize her male colleague’s behavior because she recognizes the validity of her ideas (and how important they are to the work itself).   However, this woman may still feel silenced by the sense of professional risk she experiences while using her voice.  In fact, research indicates that when women are assertive and advocate for their ideas, they are often labeled as more “aggressive” as compared to their male colleagues displaying the same behavior.   In the face of what has been termed the “likability penalty,” a woman may be apt to objectively examine the possible outcomes of speaking her mind. For example, if her colleagues do begin to see her as aggressive – or even bossy (oh no!) – can she tolerate their perspectives?  When, where, and by whom does being perceived as sometimes aggressive become problematic? One way we might address this issue therapeutically is by helping a woman develop cognitive strategies to tolerate that some colleagues will perceive her as aggressive some times (if she is indeed doing her work well), and that usually it is not catastrophic to her professional reputation.    

3. “I am going to respond because this man’s approach is not helpful to the completion of our work together or to my professional identity.”

A third woman may experience herself as competent, and as such, may recognize that her male colleague’s behavior is more reflective of his desire to be seen as confident and strong in the workplace than it is a conscious devaluing of her.  This woman, whose professional identity remains intact, is likely to feel empowered by the desire for her ideas to be recognized as having value, and for the work itself to be done well.  The challenge for this woman – and what could be reinforced in therapy – is to develop the facility in the moment to empathetically correct her colleague’s behavior, while also appearing collaborative.   However, what may be distinctive about his woman is her positive and accurate belief that she is already a relevant participant in the meeting and that her opinion matters (whether her colleague approves of it or not).  

The importance of depersonalization

As we can see from these examples, the more we can learn to depersonalize a colleague’s negative behaviors – that is, to truly understand that his inappropriate behavior has little to do with us and more to do with his issues – the more we are able to actively participate in group-based work projects without distraction.  Focused participation in the workplace is integral to a woman’s career success, and it begins with the assumption that her added value in the workplace is not dependent on constant approval by her colleagues.