Really, I Wasn’t Mansplaining—I Say that to Everyone!

Man with megaphone
Source: wikihow.com

At a startup competition I attended, I had an experience that reminded me how well-meaning people can end up in conflict because they are trapped in their personal histories. I will share this story despite being embarrassed about it, in hopes you will remember to consider the other person’s possible motives and patterns when a borderline behavior bothers you. By “borderline” I refer to behaviors that don’t cross a line (harassment, violence) but could be unprofessional depending on those motives or patterns.

When I entered the room, someone recognized me and waved me over. He explained the work he does, but I mistakenly thought he already knew what I did and skipped over that context into providing updates. He had been talking to a woman next to him, so I paused my conversation with him to introduce myself and provide her that context.

As part of my networking, I describe what I do to multiple people every week. That is an inherent part of networking. Probably six out of ten have never heard of Agile; another three either know it vaguely or have significant misconceptions. (I still run into software engineers who’ve never heard of it!) But I don’t make assumptions about what someone knows. I always ask if they are familiar with Agile. If I get anything other than a clear affirmative, I launch into my standard 30-second “elevator pitch.” You might argue I should wait until they specifically say something positive or negative, but you’d probably agree people don’t like admitting they don’t know something. I err on the side of  letting them off the hook, and rarely find later they already had a good understanding.

In this case, I said I promote the use of Agile in startups, asked her the standard question, and paused. In response I got no words or change of expression, prompting my elevator pitch, still getting no reaction most of the way. But as I was wrapping up, she sat back and said something along the lines of, “I’m an electrical engineer, so I know all about Agile.” I said “Great,” with a smile, and returned to my acquaintance.

What I did not say is, most electrical engineers I’ve talked to about Agile had never heard of it.

I was curious about the engineer’s flat response to my spiel. At the start of a break, I turned to her and said, “So I’m trying to judge your reaction: Do you not like Agile, or…”

She said she responded as she did because, “I already know what Agile is,” and her demeanor seemed angry. I instantly suspected what the problem was, and sadly, I was right.

I said I was sorry, and acknowledged the potential issue by adding with a big grin, “I wasn’t ‘mansplaining’—”

“Yes, you were,” she interrupted, refusing to look at me.

Any female in my audience knows “mansplaining.” This is the unfortunate habit of many men to explain things to women they would not feel compelled to explain to another man, or to use a condescending tone they would not use with a man. See my source below for a deeper explanation by a psychology professor, Elizabeth McClintock.

Taken aback, I decided to push back slightly. I had purposely used the word to signal that I knew about the general problem. Now I pointed out with a smile that I would have said “the same thing to someone who looked like me” when I didn’t get a reaction, “because some people don’t like to admit they don’t know something.” I looked from her back to her female friend who had sat down between us as I said, “So I wasn’t mansplaining, I was just… ’splaining,” and laughed. The friend smiled politely, wisely staying out of it.

As I was talking, however, the engineer said again, “Yes, you were.” Without knowing anything about me, she was so convinced of my motives that she wouldn’t hear anything more I said. I waited a beat and changed the subject by introducing myself to her friend.

During the next session, they left early and had to squeeze past me. The friend apologized with a smile, which I returned. My partner in conflict would not look at or speak to me despite having to make physical contact to get by. I was trying to give her a smile and nod to indicate no hard feelings.

I have used the phrase “make excuses for others” many times in my career, and now had a chance to practice it. She is at least in her 50s. She would have been one of the first, possibly the first, female electrical engineer in her college and early work experiences. She surely spent much of her career getting mansplained about her work, and any other topics that came up at work and elsewhere. In more recent years the frequency may have gone down, but any incident would be even more irritating to someone with her level of expertise. Hence when a male starts explaining something she already knows, she has an understandable knee-jerk reaction to assume he is doing so only because she is female.

Of course, I was just as trapped by my past experiences as she was hers. Especially given this was not specifically a tech-related conference, and most people outside of tech don’t know what Agile is, I thought nothing of briefly explaining it to this other human who gave no indication she knew. In case you’re thinking about subconscious or “inherent” bias, I can say confidently that I explained Agile to at least two males at the same event with the same words and tone, and not at all to two females where no explanation was needed.

My mistake with her was not waiting for an initial response as long as I usually do, because I was interrupting the conversation with my acquaintance. I am deeply sorry that I hurt her experience of the event. My takeaway is to always wait my usual time, even if that delays something else I’m doing. Continuing the possible, valid, reasons for her part in the misunderstanding, I will add that the event was at the end of a multi-day conference. She may well have been tired or on “information overload.” Maybe she needs more time than most people to register a response. Had we been on a work team in a meeting, I’m sure we could have resolved the incident quickly. Or it wouldn’t have happened, because she would have known it was my job to explain my approach to Agile—to everyone. And maybe after a good night’s sleep she finally “heard me” about explaining Agile the same way regardless of gender.

It was fair of her to be irritated; it was not helpful of her to insist I was behaving that way out of bias, since she knows nothing of my values or how I typically act with both genders. Dr. McClintock points out that women can be guilty of condescending speech, too, and that saying all men mansplain is another example of stereotyping.

I made a mistake, but not the one the engineer thought I had. Along with the lesson of more patience, I take away a reminder that I can’t easily know whether someone I just met is acting differently with me than they do with others.

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Source: McClintock, E. (2016), “The Psychology of Mansplaining,” Psychology Today, March 31, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/it-s-man-s-and-woman-s-world/201603/the-psychology-mansplaining.

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