March 22, 2021

That’s What He Said (And Shouldn’t Have) – The Mansplaining Guide

Written by Ananya Deshpande & Sophia Junginger

Cultural History & Raising Awareness

Before we begin, here’s a quick disclaimer: this article isn’t about pointing fingers or a good old blame game. We’re talking about this topic to raise awareness and share tips on how we can help make the workplace a better place, a word (or lack of it) at a time!

Let’s get right down to it. “Mansplaining” is a phenomenon as old as time. It is when a man explains something, generally (unsolicited) to a woman, thinking he knows more about the topic than she does — whether he himself knows anything or not. The earliest documentation of mansplaining goes back to a 17th-century letter (around when Composer Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany) where a husband annoyingly tells off his wife that he knows about the experience of being a wife better than she does. Much has changed since then, but little too.

Over the years, women have encountered mansplaining in different settings from the workplace to their private lives. The concept gained popularity in 2008 when Rebecca Solnit decided to address it (rather hilariously) in her essay collection, “Men Explain Things To Me,”, a portion of which was published in the Los Angeles Times. While she didn’t invent the term, people started taking note and sharing their experience(s). Rebecca herself said, “What has no name cannot be acknowledged or shared. Words are power.” Following this, an online journal comment is given credits for coining “mansplaining”. So important was the word that it shortly made its way to the Oxford English Dictionary, breaking the rule of thumb of waiting for a decade before an addition. It joined the ranks of other influential quick additions of the 21st century: Google as a verb, “podcast,” and “Brexit.” (For anyone wondering what it’s called in German, it’s “herrklären.”)

Mansplaining is a popular keyword and often looked at from a humorous perspective, with people searching for memes and funny anecdotes to illustrate it. While humor is a great way to create a sensibility for the subject, it also brings to light a much deeper issue. It emphasizes gender inequalities and unequal power dynamics cultivated over centuries. Rebecca observed that women tend to internalize self-doubt and limitation, while men internalize (unsupported) overconfidence. Thus, shedding light on the topic is ever so important to help change the mindset and become a more inclusive society.

How and Where Are Women Still Encountering Mansplaining Today?

Don’t worry, if you have encountered mansplaining, you are not alone. And if you are a “mansplainer” you are probably not aware. As stated, mansplaining can occur in all types of settings, particularly in industries that seem to be predominantly male, such as with the Tech and Startup scene.

The Evening Standard UK writes that female IT professionals across Europe perceive a career in tech to be “daunting”. Mansplaining is rife in tech jobs. About 26% of female IT decision-makers say they have witnessed mansplaining in their day jobs and 37% of female respondents said a lack of female professionals in the industry made them wary about pursuing a career in tech. Furthermore, 53% said they would be hesitant to join a company with a large gender gap.

Just like women in the corporate world, women in the startup scene face no exceptions when it comes to the phenomenon of mansplaining. From female founders having to hear their own business models explained, to them having to defend their approaches and choices. Mansplaining occurs in subtle ways, often hidden between well-intended advice, with explicit no harm in mind. Making it ever so important to create a sensibilization on how mansplaining can occur and how to avoid it.

Another place female founders have said to encounter mansplaining is during the fundraising process. As alluded to by Alexandra Staton in her piece about how female founders can outwit investors during fundraising. Even all-female-funds most investors are men, so she says women need to be extra prepared with a set of tools to help them secure the deal.

Is It Really Mansplaining?

To help you better navigate situations, regardless of your gender we have prepared our own set of friendly tips around the question: Is it advice or is it mansplaining? A frequent concern is that both parties have difficulties distinguishing the line between mansplaining and well-intended advice, especially when it comes from a supervisor, mentor, or boss. However, the line is not as blurry as it may first seem. If you are having trouble interpreting the situation, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did she ask for advice? Yes? Go ahead and explain away. If not, ask if she would like some advice before explaining something.
  2. Are you an expert or a mentor with more experience than her in a particular topic area? Yes? Ask yourself the first question and go ahead and explain away. No? A clear sign you should probably not start explaining.
  3. Are you questioning her ability, skill, or knowledge by giving her advice? Yes? It could be perceived as patronizing and it might be advisable to take a step back. No? Ask yourself the questions above.
  4. Are you interrupting her while she is explaining something? Yes? It’s probably mansplaining. No? Ask yourself the questions above.
  5. Did you ask her if she wanted you to explain? Lastly, take a look at her facial expression. Yes? Read the room. If other people are registering profound discomfort, that might be a sign that you’ve made a misstep in the dialogue.

Tips on How to Deal with Mansplaining (Without Burning Bridges)

We spoke to women in the German Accelerator universe, from female founders to women in business, asking them how best to deal with mansplaining based on any professional/personal experiences. Here is our collective advice:

1. Use Humor
The omniscient Snoopy believes every time you find some humor in a difficult situation, you win.

Alleged marketing expert in a non-marketing role: “Don’t spend much time on the content; the main thing is to make the slides pretty.”
Alleged non-marketing expert in a marketing role (In an ironic tone): “Thanks for reminding me what Marketing is all about!”

2. Call It Out
Channel your non-verbal energy (eye rolls and muted swearing) into the verbal (say what you need to say).

“When I was at a consulting firm, my co-worker would always talk over me in meetings and explain things that I was trying to explain. Even for parts of the project that were 100% my responsibility, sometimes even misdescribing my work! One day, I decided to talk to him about the issue, and as we have it, he said he didn’t even notice he was doing it and would try to be more mindful. Calling it out worked well.”

3. Keep Calm and Don’t Let Him Carry On
Like a traffic light, give him clear signals to stop his train of thought articulation. Ask him if he has the experience that justifies him to explain; otherwise, advise him not to explain.

“When I founded my startup (offering contraceptive counseling online) and told an older man in my family about it, I was completely blindsided by his reaction. Instead of letting me finish, he supposedly knew all about it better than me:
– How women feel about contraception
– How women are advised about contraceptives
– What women want
– Why women didn’t need my offering
He didn’t care that I had interviewed over 120 women with the unanimous result that we urgently needed better contraceptive counseling, and I had no chance to convince him of the essential female perspective on this issue. Back then, I was completely caught off guard by his reaction and forced myself to let it go, but today I would stay calm and suggest to him to ask women around him about their experiences on this topic.”