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May 18, 2016

'Mansplaining': What it is, and how to prevent it

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on November 14, 2017.

"Mansplaining" can contribute to female employee turnover. Luckily, it's a habit that can be easily broken.

Your one-stop shop for reducing early turnover

The term refers to a man's act of condescendingly explaining something to a woman—even when she hasn't requested the information, or knows more about the topic than he does.

For instance, a female business director tells the Chicago Tribune that her boss once mansplained multiple ways of sending information.

"He said, 'You send it in an email, but there are other ways. You can call me, you can call my office phone, you can call my cellphone, you can text me,'" she recalls. "And I thought, 'Are you really explaining to me modes of communication right now?' There was no nuance to it whatsoever. [His tone] was like he was giving me new information."

Mansplaining is a symptom of "overconfidence and cluelessness," says Rebecca Solnit, who coined the term in her 2008 book "Men Explain Things To Me." She was inspired, she says, by an incident in which a man at a party described a recent book to her "smugly" and at length. Solnit's friend had to tell the man "three or four times" that Solnit was the author of the very book "before he finally took it in ... [and] went ashen."

Why do men 'mansplain'? It partly has to do with power, observers say. "Important men [are] used to occupying space, time, and attention," says Julia Baird, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and they can "talk at numbing length."

But while men in senior roles are more likely to monologue, senior women aren't, Baird says. Research shows that women who speak more directly and frequently are often considered too aggressive. "In other words, men are rewarded for speaking, while women are punished," she writes.

So why is mansplaining a problem? "It's a slow drip of sexism," says the Tribune's Rex Huppke. Explaining basic concepts to women isn't helpful; it's condescending—and it reinforces the outdated stereotype that women aren't competent or capable.

Workplace culture matters. When female employees feel demeaned, they're not as happy at work—and are less likely to stay. Companies that prioritize gender equality have happier employees, lower turnover rates, and higher rates of productivity, according to Michael Kimmel, a professor at Stony Brook University.

Curing mansplaining. Luckily, it isn't difficult to curb mansplaining tendencies. "Before you cut off a female colleague or launch into an explanation of something that needs no explanation, ask yourself: 'Am I about to mansplain?'" Huppke recommends.

"Here's the bottom line, guys: If three seconds keeps you from demeaning a co-worker and makes you less of a jerk, that's three seconds well-spent," Huppke adds (Baird, New York Times, 4/20; Huppke, Chicago Tribune, 5/13; Solnit, The Nation, 8/20/12; Kimmel, TED, May 2015).

The science—and strategy—behind having a 'great meeting'

There are about 11 million formal meetings in the United States every day—and more than half of them may be unproductive, Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn told public radio program Marketplace recently.

Drawing on best practices—as well as lessons from across our own organization—Advisory Board experts created this infographic to help you determine whether or not you really need a meeting, and how to maximize everyone's time if you do.

Get the Infographic

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