Let me mansplain: studies reveal impact of condescension

Exclusive: US research using actors and volunteers finds women have negative outcomes but men are less affected

Let me explain this to you slowly, to make sure you understand. Mansplaining is a made-up word, that combines the words man and explaining to describe when a person – usually a man – provides a condescending explanation of something to someone who already understands it.

Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I can’t be guilty of something akin to it, but female recipients are more likely to respond negatively to male mansplainers doing it and to feel like their competence is being questioned, data suggests. They also speak up less frequently after it happens, which could have consequences for workplace contentment and productivity.

Although mansplaining has been the subject of various Twitterstorms in recent years, there has been relatively little research on why and how mansplaining occurs, or people’s reactions to it.

To help fill this gap, Caitlin Briggs, a graduate research fellow at Michigan State University in East Lansing, US and her colleagues asked 128 volunteers to imagine they’d been appointed to a committee charged with allocating bonus funds to deserving employees. After reviewing descriptions of the shortlisted candidates, they went into a meeting with two actors, one of whom questioned whether they’d understood the nature of the task and proceeded to mansplain it to them. In some cases, this person was a man, in others a woman.

“What we found was that women largely had negative outcomes as a result of being mansplained to, whereas it didn’t affect men as much,” said Briggs, whose research was published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. “They tended to register that their competence was being questioned more than men did, and to attribute this to a gender bias – so, maybe this person doesn’t think highly of me or doesn’t like me because of my gender.”

This feeling wasn’t shared by male volunteers who were given a condescending explanation by a woman. “Maybe they perceived it as ‘this person is being rude to me’, but they didn’t perceive it any differently if it came from a man or woman, and they didn’t attribute it to a gender bias,” Briggs said.

Video footage also showed that women spoke fewer words after a man spoke condescendingly to them, compared with if a woman did it, but men’s dialogue was unaffected by such interactions.

Other recent research also attests to the problematic nature of mansplaining. Chelsie Smith at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and her colleagues interviewed 499 US and Canadian adults about their recent workplace experiences, asking if they had experienced mansplaining, how frequently it occurred, and the gender of the perpetrator. They were particularly interested in knowing whether the “man” part of mansplaining was appropriate.

They found that mansplaining was pervasive, with nearly every individual having experienced it at least once in the past year, regardless of their gender. Women could also be guilty of it, but men were almost twice as likely to be the perpetrator, while women and gender minority individuals were the most common targets.

“Taken together, these studies show us that mansplaining does indeed happen in workplaces and that it has a real impact on the target of the behaviour,” said Smith, who also found that these experiences were associated with feelings of frustration and upset, as well as longer-term workplace dissatisfaction and desire to quit.

“Mansplaining can lead to employees feeling that they are undervalued or not valued in their workplace, or as though they don’t belong – even if there was no negative intent on the part of the instigator.”

Smith also collected a database of tweets describing incidents of mansplaining, and analysed it to see if certain themes emerged. Based on this analysis, she has proposed a broadening of the definition of mansplaining to “providing an unsolicited or unwelcome, condescending or persistent, explanation to someone, either questioning their knowledge or assuming they did not know, regardless of the veracity of the explanation. The mansplainer is most typically a man and the recipient is most typically not a man.”

As for what can be done about it, Briggs said a greater awareness of the problem was a crucial first step. Information about mansplaining could be incorporated into workplace training, while recordings of virtual meetings could also be monitored to learn how often people are being interrupted or ignored when speaking up – behaviours that could also make people feel like their competence was being questioned – and how often they are being mansplained to.

Workplace leaders also needed to be aware that mansplaining could be detrimental to team functioning, said Smith. “If they see or hear of it happening, they should provide feedback and coaching to the instigator as to how better approach similar situations in the future.”

But Rebecca Solnit, the US author who first described the phenomenon in her 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me, said that although such research was worthwhile, focusing on mansplaining in the workplace and public life risked severing it from the larger context in which it existed: “In a world in which men are granted, including in their own imaginations, more authority, more credibility, and more competence, women’s voices are undermined in parliaments, Congress, courtrooms, bedrooms, classrooms, hospitals and medical examining rooms, and everywhere else.

“So, mansplaining is one aspect of a much broader phenomenon with much more dire and sometimes fatal implications. People rarely seem to have noticed that in the original 2008 essay I moved pretty briskly from the funny incident in which a man explains my own book to me, to one where another man tells me why, when a woman ran out of her house screaming that her husband was trying to kill her, he was confident she was mad and her husband was not a menace, ie, that he should not listen to her or believe her.”

Solnit also quibbled with the idea that mansplaining could be done by anyone other than a man. “If it’s not a man explaining to a woman or a similarly gendered situation, it’s not mansplaining, though it can be uninformed and inappropriate patronising assumptions and language,” she said.


Linda Geddes Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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