How to Thwart “Mansplaining”

by Debra Bednar-Clark

“Mansplaining” has not been in our lexicon long, but the word has forced us to examine the behavior of men condescending to women more closely — especially in the workplace — in the few years it has roared onto the scene.

There was a time not so long ago when the word “mansplaining” would have drawn blank stares. Not that these micro-aggressions didn’t occur, of course, but that there was no word that so aptly identified and described the practice, usually defined as incidents of men condescending to women. The term has since become ubiquitous in our political and gender discrimination discussions, particularly concerning workplace settings, forcing us all to take a closer look at the behavior.

Every one of my clients has reported encountering mansplaining, from being interrupted to faulted in front of co-workers, whether they hail from a top tech firm or a small non-profit. Here’s how I advise my clients to handle mansplaining when it arises at the office.

1. Understand Why It’s Happening

The women I coach are self-aware and value personal growth. So, when they experience disrespectful behavior, they tend to look within and question what they did to warrant the behavior. So, I ask them to extend that same level of introspection toward the ‘offender’ to understand what might be driving his behavior.”

In my experience, the most brilliant and confident men are respectful, encouraging, and seek dissenting points of view to strengthen their work. And the men who treat women disrespectfully tend to be, insecure, unaware or less capable than their colleagues. They lash out because they feel unsafe or threatened. Worst of all are the men who don’t feel accountable to anyone. It’s an empowering moment for most women once they gain insight into why the man does what he does because then they realize it’s about him and not about them. It gives women the confidence to address the behavior on the spot.

2. Shift Your Perspective

One of my coaching clients is a “rock-star” female leader at a prominent tech company whose male colleague consistently condescends. The client is experienced, skilled and qualified for her role, but he still treats her as though she’s irrelevant, interrupting her in meetings, casting blame on her in front of others, becoming defensive when she asks him for input, and impeding her progress by missing deadlines on certain initiatives.

My coaching client wasn’t sure whether she should say something in the moment because she feared that she would be seen as ‘uncool’ and ‘needy.’ She even considered abandoning her core values and personality traits of kindness and approachability because she didn’t want to be perceived as weak.

I remind women that stating what they need is not a weakness, but a strength. That means communicating to others how they expect to be treated and setting boundaries to designate appropriate behavior. And when communicating, they should use a professional tone. If the receiver is on the defensive, he’ll be less likely to hear the message. It’s important to remember that being kind, approachable and strong are not mutually exclusive.

3. Seize the Moment

Finally, I believe that it is important to say and/or do something in the moment. When women stand up to men who were disrespectful, they will often permanently adjust their behavior. In a group setting, it sends a message to everyone in the room who heard the offending behavior that it won’t be tolerated.

The key is to be prepared so you know what to say. Most women feel caught off guard in the moment and at a loss for words. Knowing how to address someone who is disrespectful isn’t taught in business school or management books. So, I work with my coaching clients to create sample “scripts,” or words they can say on the spot to convey they expect to be treated with respect, doing so with a commanding presence but also with poise and professionalism.

Staying silent and not sharing perspectives, insights and ideas can wreak havoc on a woman’s self-esteem and stymie business growth. They should take action. If they’re feeling upstaged or drowned out by a male colleague, they should ask if it’s possible to lead or co-lead the meeting, to set the agenda, or to carve out a time on the agenda to share their ideas.

Another client who works at a leading New York media company with a predominately male team said her ideas are minimized in meetings because her male colleagues associate her feminine style with a lack of ability. “She said to me, ‘As you can see by my outfit today, I’m wearing sneakers that I don’t like and an outfit that feels incredibly bland so I can fit in with my male colleagues.’ This wardrobe solution might work for the guys, but not for my coaching client.

Personal style is a form of personal expression, so when you’re not being true to what makes you look and feel your best, you lose a piece of yourself each day, which affects your performance, productivity and confidence. When you deliver in your role and embrace your whole, authentic self, you will be respected for your results and admired for staying true to you.

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