While the term “mansplaining” has only been around for about five years or so (since Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 book Men Explain Things to Me), women have been experiencing it at work for centuries. What is “mansplaining” exactly? It can take plenty of forms, but in a general sense, this concept refers to an instance where a male employee instructs his female employee on how to do a part of her job she’s skilled at. However, he assumes because of her gender, she doesn’t know how to complete the task at hand.
For many women, this is a frustrating, exhausting ritual that happens frequently, no matter if they are assistant or executive level. While more men are becoming acutely aware of their office interactions with women, knowing how to—professionally—handle the mansplaining when it happens to you can be tricky. Here, three women executives who have been there and rolled their eyes at that share their strategies:
Challenge it in a direct but professional way
Founder of LXMI and Samasource, Leila Janah says oftentimes, her interactions with male senior hires or board members would lead them to counter her ideas, based on their “experience.” Because they felt as if they had many more years under their belt, they found their ideas superior, even two going as far to attempt to get her fired. While it’s tempting to unleash your fury, Janah says the best course of action is to remain calm—but not to back down, no matter what they call you.
“Young men with bold ideas and lots of energy get labeled ‘visionary’ while women are much more likely to be called ‘hysterical’ or ‘passionate.’ I’ve been labeled both,” she continues. “It helps to remain super calm. When you have an in to the conversation, remind the person or people that visionary ideas by definition have no precedent.”
But rather than attempting to mask an icy composure, Janah says it’s helpful to challenge in a professional way, not undermining but being direct. She’s even asked a few people “Would you treat a man in my position the same way?” or “It feels like you don’t take me seriously as an equal/as your boss. Is there any truth to this statement?” Both of these, she notes, have cleared up any attitude, ASAP. “Own it—and use data to back up your arguments wherever possible. Mansplaining is no match for data-driven confidence,” she adds.
Use humor to clear the air
Despite being the founder and CEO of the AI company Node, Falon Fatemi constantly has a male explaining to her, in great detail, how software works when networking. Even when she’s leading the conversation, men will step in to override or “better detail” the function, when in reality, they’re just repeating what she’s already said. Since it’s her company, she’s advised the team to avoid making assumptions, encouraged them to ask questions, and to give all people the benefit of the doubt. “It’s disrespectful to assume people don’t understand basic concepts in the industry they’re working in and shows a lack of self-awareness,” she notes.
Considering she thinks “mansplaining happens so often it’s like a death by a thousand paper cuts,” she’s turned to humor as a way to turn the conversation. Not only does this diffuse tension, but it provides an opportunity to call it out when it’s happening, gracefully. “I try to make a joke out of it by saying something like the following with a total smile on my face: ‘Well, that’s an unhelpful statement, have any other perspective on the problem at hand that we can address?'” she continues. “Rather than getting defensive, it allows you to handle the situation gracefully and puts you in a position of strength. If you’re not able to do that on the fly, just ignore it or say, “of course,” and move on. Just keep in mind that if you don’t address it, it will keep happening.”
Remember it’s not about you
When founder and president of Yubi Beauty Adiya Dixon Wiggins transitioned from law to entrepreneurship, she had a (well-meaning) male colleague bombard her with comments about her website. He then proceeded to explain—in what Wiggins described as “great detail”—what women look for when they’re on the hunt for beauty products. “He is in a totally unrelated industry, has no background in beauty, and his wife wears no makeup and isn’t into skincare,” she shared. Though it’s second nature to react instantly and iterate your expertise, Wiggins recommends doing your best to not take it personally, and use it as an educational opportunity. After all, it’s likely not about you, specifically: “A mansplainer is going to mansplain whether you are perfectly clear or not, so don’t see it as a reason for you to change your communication style,” she continues. “More likely than not these guys will dig themselves in a hole as they speak and will just look silly.”
When she takes a pause, she tries to shift the way she’s viewing their action and use it to her advantage, or that of her company. “I sometimes see it happen when men are simply overexcited about something you are working on. They can’t help themselves,” she explains. “Try to leverage their enthusiasm in those cases, especially if it happens when you are trying to pitch an idea or product.”