Signs That You’re a Mansplainer at Work

By Brian O'Connell June 23, 2020
Signs That You’re a Mansplainer at Work

​He interrupts colleagues to opine on topics on which he's no expert. He comes off as a know-it-all. It can sound condescending. It can seem patronizing, especially as he's more likely to interrupt, talk over or explain to a woman who hasn't asked for that information.

Maybe he's a "mansplainer"—a noun that crept into the modern lexicon about a decade ago, and into official dictionaries two years back.

Be on the lookout for the mansplainer, because he—or she—can hurt workplace morale, said Tiiu Lutter, director of development and marketing at Child Guidance Resource Centers in Philadelphia.

"I have a chronic mansplainer on my team, and he just cannot help himself," Lutter said. "Typically, he will overhear a discussion and be compelled to interrupt and
weigh in. Diversity suffers when a few voices dominate all conversations, and this negatively impacts creativity and innovation."

Mansplaining Origins

There's little hard data on how many mansplaining incidents occur in the workplace. One study from the Harvard Business Review found that male justices interrupted female justices three times as often as they interrupted male justices.

"This happens every day across all kinds of industries," said Amelia Ransom, senior director, engagement and diversity at Avalara, in Seattle, Wash.

The term "mansplaining" originated back in 2008, with an essay titled Men Explain Things to Me; Facts Didn't Get in the Way by Rebecca Solnit, on the website TomDispatch, where the author dealt with the issue of patronizing men.

The term didn't appear in Solnit's essay, but it did start bubbling up as the piece grew in prominence, especially in feminist circles.

By 2018, the term "mansplaining" finally appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as follows:

"Mansplaining—when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does."

Not that it needed to, but the Merriam-Webster addition cemented the term "mansplaining" in the cultural lexicon. Still, many men in the workplace aren't sure what it means, said Jessica McCall, Ph.D., an English professor at Delaware Valley University, in Doylestown, Penn. Some, she said, even call the term "overblown."

"Mansplaining is absolutely a real thing and calling it 'overblown' is actually, wait for it, a sign of mansplaining," McCall said.  

According to McCall, mansplaining occurs when one party behaves as the default expert on a topic, regardless of the other party's expertise, experience or body language. Typically, she said, it's a man "explaining" things to a woman.

"The main threat is unintended consequences," McCall said. "Mansplaining is rarely intentionally vicious; it's far more likely to arise from a place of patronizing. Because the mansplainer assumes they know more, it increases the chances of viewing a co-worker as less knowledgeable and, thus, less competent."

McCall said that while mansplaining is, most often, just an annoyance, in the workplace it can be a clear sign that an employee's expertise is being disregarded or discounted, which can affect performance reviews, promotions and bonuses.

"We're less likely to pick people we mansplain to for committees, teams, task forces and leadership roles because mansplaining means we view them as knowing less," she noted. "This is when it moves from being annoying to negatively impacting someone's financial and professional life."

Signs That You're a Mansplainer

 While men are tabbed as the guilty party in most mansplaining incidents, women can engage in the behavior, too. Additionally, mansplainers don't only reside in the management realm; rank and file workers can exhibit the behavior, too.

As a career professional, if you're unsure whether you're exhibiting mansplaining behavior, experts say the following workplace communication characteristics can be red flags.

You seek dominance in any conversation or communication. Often, mansplaining is loud and offered from a position of dominance, as in leaning back in a chair.

"For example, I serve on an overdose task force, and there is this man who continually reminds the group that he is an old community organizer, and the only way any change happens is to have a large group of people get together, and on it goes," Lutter said. "He never asks any questions, is never curious, and always, but always, jumps in with the answer to every single query."

You're ignoring staffers. Sometimes, mansplaining can be nonverbal. "One sign of mansplaining is when managers reject or don't acknowledge issues that are brought up by employees," Ransom said.

Holding back on positive feedback is another form of mansplaining, Ransom adds. "Not giving credit to everybody involved in creating an idea or solution is a problem," she said.

You can be rude. The mansplainer often interrupts others or jumps into the conversation uninvited, said Dixie Gillaspie, a life and career coach based in St. Louis, Mo. "There is no invitation to dialog; the other person is not invited to add anything more to the conversation," she added. "Plus, any further conversation is immediately discredited, or the mansplainer walks away or moves on to another person or topic."

Your tone is often condescending, as if you're talking as a superior to an inferior, Gillaspie said. "It might be kind, even caring, but it's not a tone you'd take with a peer."

Nate Masterson, human resources manager at Maple Holistics, in Farmingdale, N.J., said a tone like that can't be tolerated at work.

"If someone is being disrespectful to anyone else by being condescending or rude, it's an issue and a threat to the company's reputation and productivity," he said. "Anyone who is in a position of power over someone else needs to be aware that anything they say has more weight behind it and anything they say will be taken to heart more quickly."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Penn. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC's Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide.

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