Yesterday I was leaving a client’s office and found myself in midtown Manhattan, on Madison Avenue in the low 50’s, waiting to cross the street. Two French women of a certain age, clearly tourists, approached me and asked in heavily accented English if I could tell them where to find St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I smiled at them and pointed to the neo-gothic spires visible two blocks away and said, “You can see it from here. It’s just a few blocks in that direction,” when a man’s voice off to my left said, “That’s not St. Patrick’s.”
The poor ladies looked panicked. Clearly they had asked me for directions because I looked safe and trustworthy and now these two strangers were disagreeing on the street and where were they to go?
I turned to the well-dressed man who had rudely inserted himself into my conversation and said, “Sir, that is St. Patrick’s.”
And he jumped right in again and said with a sneer, “St. Patrick’s is on Fifth Avenue.”
“Sir, that is the back of St. Patrick’s!”
“Oh. You would think a good Irish Catholic boy like me would know that.” With that he walked away.
I was dumbfounded and the French ladies were confused. I reassured them that if they walked just one block in the direction they would see all of the majesty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and, by the way, the entrance was around the other side.
I have coached young women who have complained about men talking over them in work and I have worked with them on finding their confidence and strengthening their belief in what they have to say. Perhaps I’ve done them a disservice. Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words man and explaining, defined as “to explain something to someone, typically a man to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing. “Mansplaining” has received loads of attention in the media, even rating a skit on the Jimmy Kimmel Show with Kimmel and Hillary Clinton as the key players.
Does “mansplaining” exist? The research is startling and staggering. Lucy Vernasco did an excellent piece in BitchMedia in 2014 that pulled together a number of studies. Some of her key finds include:
· Women get interrupted more than men.
· Men dominate conversations during professional meetings.
· Men and boys dominate conversations in classrooms.
I don’t like terms that pull us apart and ‘mansplaining’ does just that. I have had male teachers and professors who respected me and taught me that what I had to say was important. I have had male bosses who listened when I spoke. I have had men who coached me to find my voice. It is true that, as a society, we treat men and women differently and some of those differences have real impact in the workplace. What do we do? For a start, I would recommend that every parent of a daughter read Soraya Chemaly’s article, “10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn.”
But there are no easy answers, right? I once left a company that I thought had some real gender bias (and age bias) that was unacknowledged and unexamined. As I was preparing executives for the transition, I said that I thought that many of the younger women throughout the organization were going to be affected by me leaving; they saw me as a role model and that should be considered as they prepared the staff for the upcoming changes. A very senior executive replied, “You’ve resigned. You no longer get to voice an opinion about how we run the company.” Two years later he wondered out loud why women seemed to be so disenfranchised.
It seems crazy that we still need to have these conversations in 2016! But dealing with unaddressed bias is not just a feel good subject. It keeps employees from bringing their loyalty, commitment and best thinking to the business.
I can’t argue strongly enough for all executives and managers to seek feedback from people who will be open and honest. If you are so senior (or unapproachable) that your own employees will not be straight with you, get a coach who will help get you a true picture of how you communicate with people. We can’t hear the places where we’re deaf or see the places where we’re blind.
There is a postscript to this essay. I asked my husband to read it. Now he had never heard the phrase “mansplaining” and he has never done it in his life; of that I am sure. When he finished he looked up and said, “But hon, I can see you interrupting someone on the street if you thought they were giving the wrong directions to a tourist. Are you sure this is about gender?”
Wow. I sure didn’t like hearing that. But it did get me thinking about how I’ve changed my own ways of communicating to get the corner office. What do my readers say?