Here’s the Deal with Mansplaining and Why it Needs to Stop

By Sophie Oswald
Illustrations by Matthew Vargas

“Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t,” Rebecca Solnit remarked in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. While Solnit didn’t specifically use the word “mansplain” in her popular essay, she was one of the first to discuss this phenomenon. Conversations surrounding her essay shortly resulted in the term appearing in a comment section online.

Most women, maybe even all women, have been there. Men have been explaining things in patronizing ways for centuries. 

Generally, mansplaining involves a conversation between a man and a woman, but sometimes it can happen between two men or with a man and a non-binary person.

So why does mansplaining happen so often? When men are above women in their field they tend to think they got there because they’re smarter. There is a gender-brilliance stereotype that depicts males as being smarter than females, which can hold women back in their careers. This holds true in classroom settings as well. In a 2018 study from Arizona State University, researchers found women were far more likely than men to underestimate their intelligence.

Women often fall behind from a lack of confidence and opportunity rather than inferior knowledge. In The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Clair Shipman, they explain just how complex confidence really is through their own research and research done by others. 

One interesting finding they mention was discovered by Hewlett-Packard. Women tend to only apply for jobs or promotions if they meet 100% of the qualifications listed, while men tend to apply if they meet 60% of them. Men who lack qualifications still reach for the stars while women tend to let perfectionism get in the way and hold themselves back.

Men don’t second guess themselves as much as women. When men fail they bounce back and still find ways to come out on top. This is an important part of building confidence. Women don’t just hold themselves back though. Others help them do it too. Take this 2017 analysis of thousands of surgeons for example: following the death of a patient, male surgeons hardly saw a decline in physician referrals while female surgeons received 34% fewer referrals. 

“Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence,” Solnit writes in her essay.

People of opposite genders also tend to communicate differently, according to Deborah Tannen’s genderlect theory—both in the ways they carry themselves and in language rituals. 

Tannen found men seek status during conversations, while women seek a connection. Men tend to speak more in public where they can feel powerful, while women enjoy conversing in private spaces where they can work on building a bond with another person. Women also tend to be more empathetic towards others and avoid conflict to avoid compromising the connections they worked hard to build. Meanwhile, men are more likely to use conflict to gain status over their peers. This difference in empathy has been researched countless times. In this study of 505 adolescent males and females, results confirmed females have a greater empathic response than males. 

In this lecture, Tannen speaks about how boys and girls develop different conversational rituals as we grow up. She explains both boys and girls are competitive and cooperative, but all individuals carefully choose how they present themselves to the world. Tannen notes the same amount of effort boys put into trying to “top one another,” girls put into relating to others. 

Misogyny isn’t just about some men hating women; it’s about controlling women and punishing those who fight back against male dominance. Women who don’t challenge men in this way are rewarded. 

Cultural conditioning such as sexism and misogyny also plays a role in shaping an individual’s characteristics. 

In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne argues misogyny isn’t just about some men hating women; it’s about controlling women and punishing those who fight back against male dominance. Women who don’t challenge men in this way are rewarded. 

Men act more entitled because they were never shut down as kids. They aren’t held accountable for their actions. In Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, a solid argument is made for how male entitlement is the root of more than just mansplaining. It is also connected to mass shootings done by incels and other harmful acts that come from the hands of men.

“We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender,” Solnit explains in her essay. 

There is a lack of education about consent and many adults are out there having sex while still being confused about the exact definition. That’s not cool. Women tend to have a better understanding of both consent and sexual assault. People, especially men, need to be taught about consent at a young age. This doesn’t tend to be a topic explored in sex education classes in school and parents rarely sit their kids down to talk about consent. When these conversations do happen, parents seem to talk to their daughters about it rather than their sons. 

Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, men are given an idea of what it means to be a man and pressured to be strong and powerful in all endeavors. If they are different and behave in ways that aren’t masculine, they are shamed. 

Despite all the above facts, there is no excuse for being an asshole. Some men enter conversations with the intention of undermining the reputation of their female counterparts, which is never okay.

Mansplaining isn’t a feminist term society can shrug off. It isn’t a made up thing that only exists so man-haters can put someone in their place.

Power dynamics often come into play during conversations between men and women, and it’s a real issue. 

Most women aren’t going to care if a man wants to teach them something new. Having knowledgeable conversations can be enjoyable, but it all comes down to how a conversation plays out and assumptions that are made by either party. 

My message to men: If you’re going to be condescending, you can see yourself out. No matter how highly you think of yourself, you’re probably not the smartest person in the room. Don’t just assume you know more about a topic than the person you’re talking to. Before you start interrupting others with your oh-so-great point, figure out if they know about it first.

This chart may clear up the concept. 

(Source: Kim Goodwin)

How should you handle mansplaining?

It can be difficult to speak up for yourself, especially when surrounded by people of power, but remaining silent in the face of wrongdoings continues negative cycles. Even if mansplaining doesn’t happen directly to you, you can still point it out and stand up for those around you. When we stay strong in tough situations and confront these people, it starts a dialogue that can change things down the line.

While it shouldn’t be up to the people being put aside to stand up for what’s right, it can help. 

Here are some questions from Jezebel you may want to ask if there comes a time when you need to shut down a mansplainer:

  1. Do you actually know how much the woman you’re talking to knows about the same subject? 
  2. Are you using your supposed expertise to prove something about your manhood?
  3. When she talks, are you listening to what she’s saying or merely rehearsing your next line?
  4. Are you talking about your own experience, or are you universalizing how everyone feels? Are you explaining her experience to her? 
  5. Do you actually know what you’re talking about? 

Reading through these questions and remembering them will come in handy because needing to shut down a mansplainer at some point in the future is inevitable. 

It’s also worth acknowledging that there are other styles of explaining that are no fun for anyone in a discussion. For example, whitesplaining is its own beast. Who knows why so many white people believe they should be the ones speaking on issues of race. Sure the more people discussing these topics the better, but don’t speak over someone that knows more about racism—especially someone who has experienced it first hand.

Keep in mind that quite a few of the men that interrupt and mansplain don’t realize they’re doing it. It can be hard to point out, but when given a chance to learn and break negative cycles, some of these people really can change. They might surprise you, or they might not. If they don’t want to listen, you don’t need to lend them your ear. See your way out of that chat!

Sophie Oswald (she/her) is a writer and creator currently living in Kansas City. She got her degree in mass media with an emphasis in film and video from Washburn University. She also has minors in art, history, and women’s studies. When Sophie isn’t writing or volunteering her time to social justice, she can be found hanging out with her pets. 

Matthew Vargas (he/him) is a designer hailing from Kansas City, with an emphasis on digital illustration and hand lettering. He focuses on causes that empower minorities, especially LGBTQ-related issues. When he doesn’t have a pencil hand, his tool of trade is the fork. He’s constantly hunting for the best biscuits and gravy in town. While he doesn’t have any pets, he loves to live vicariously through other pet owners.

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