By now, the term mansplaining – to explain something to a woman in a condescending manner that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic – has become mainstream. It was even incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018.
It’s also a kind of “inside joke” among women. Our bosses, peers, and even direct reports “mansplain us”. Our family and friends too…
Sometimes we just sigh.
Sometimes we try to “kindly” point out to the mansplainer that we know better than them.
Sometimes we fight back, like the time that during an evaluation of scholarships for funding, I had a disagreement with another juror regarding a research proposal to develop new tools for materials molecular simulation.
I found the proposal weak, partly because not enough details were given about the methodology that was to be implemented. One of the other evaluators countered that he had found the proposal outstanding. When I pointed to him the list of “holes” in the proposal, he retorted that although he was no expert in modelling he insisted the proposal was excellent. I replied that – unlike him – I was an expert on that kind of materials modelling so that my feedback should prevail.
And even last week, I was mansplained when I shared among colleagues that I was writing a book about how women succeed in tech. I mentioned that I was collecting answers to my short survey asking those women what has made them stay and what they need to thrive in the next 5 years. One of them – whom I’d never met before – volunteered that this was not the right focus for the book. He shared that instead I should write about how STEM is taught in the schools…
Even The Economist has found use for the word in their article The battle for internet search: “ChatGPT often gets things wrong. It has been likened to a mansplainer: supremely confident in its answers, regardless of their accuracy”.
But mansplaining can be life-threatening too, as Rebecca Solnit – who inspired the word with her essay Men explain things to me – wrote in The Guardian last week.
Mansplaining occurs too when
- The police explain to us that the partner violence we experience is not rape.
- When doctors explain to us that our pain is imaginary rather than uncovering that it’s caused by endometriosis.
- When we denounce sexist, ageist, racist, or ableist practices in the workplace and we’re told that it’s only banter.
Mansplaining and epistemic injustice
At the root of mansplaining there is a bigger issue: Who we believe is credible.
In the end, what we believe is conditioned by who’s the messenger. Is it a White male in a coat or a Black trans woman? A Venezuelan immigrant single mother or a wealthy Indian man that studied at Oxford?
Dr. Miranda Fricker – a Professor of Philosophy at New York University – coined the term epistemic injustice, the concept of an injustice done against someone “specifically in their capacity as a knower”.
There are two kinds of epistemic injustice.
Testimonial injustice is when somebody is not believed because of their identity. Like when women are mansplained about their pain being imaginary because they are women.
Hermeneutical injustice is when somebody’s experiences are not understood so they are minimised or diminished. For example, before the term was introduced, the experience of being mansplained had already existed for centuries. However, as there wasn’t a word for it, it was difficult to recognise it as a particular form of patronising women and even for women to discuss the experience among themselves.
How to counter epistemic justice?
We need to get bolder at sharing our experiences of injustice, even we don’t have a name.
As I mentioned in my post What words do we need to invent to embed systemic change?, we must give ourselves permission to create and discard words to be able to build new futures.
And that also includes creating words to describe our experiences. For example,
- The constant state of alert that we immigrants experience because the laws of the countries we live in can unexpectedly change affecting our right to work and live in the country.
- The sense of dread people from older generations experience when they go to a job interview and they feel they need to reassure the prospective hiring manager that they won’t steal their job.
- When your boss boasts about being a female ally because he has a daughter but doesn’t do anything to advance gender equity in the workplace.
BACK TO YOU: How has mansplaining impacted your life? Let me know in the comments.
hello, I remember when I was a young sales woman wanting to become a manager in a big american tech firm in France I had a discussion about the number of women managers with an older (white) male manager. his answer was “we don’t have many women managers because they DO NOT want to become managers, that’s it”. this was 30+ years ago and I want to believe things have evolved since …
Now only yesterday I read an article about my new passion, sailing. an interview of a famous old sailor by a young femele student : the question was “why do you think there are so few women in sailing races?” and the answer … “There are few women, that’s for sure, but that’s because they don’t want to sail: that’s the problem. I don’t know if it’s politically very correct to say that, but in my opinion, the desire to sail is stronger on average among boys than among girls, that’s all. This is why at major regattas, there are only 10% women. And it’s not because they aren’t allowed on the boats, it’s because you can’t find them.”
YES YES I confirm there are very few women sailing but I am convinced that it’s more because young girls have too few role models in that field, and because they are not encouraged to sail, than because “they don’t want to !!!!!!!”
Thanks for sharing your experience spanning 30 years. Some things change a little, hence why I wrote the post.
I’m a keen scuba diver and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told that women don’t like diving. Whilst there may be fewer women practicing the sport, the truth is that the sector doesn’t do a lot to attract them. All the opposite.
For example, shopping for a diving suit is a journey if you’re a woman. Fewer sizes, fewer models to choose from, and no clue about how to sell to women divers. It’s been about 10 years now but I still remember a diving shop where they gave me a diving suit for men to try on without telling me. When I tried to put it on, I realised that it was not fitting at all so I checked and it was for a man. When I told the clerk, he replied that he didn’t think I’d be able to notice the difference…
Indeed, frustrating. That’s why we need to keep fighting it, Sylvie!