Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: We have a mansplainer in the office. All of the women on my team have noticed it, and we don’t know what to do. I tend to avoid talking to him one-on-one because I am afraid he will try to explain my job to me (again) even though I have been managing accounts for years. I do not need you to explain how to talk to clients to me; I’m pretty great at it. He is constantly repeating things that women have said without crediting them. I don’t know if he is aware of it or not.
I’m worried that it’s affecting my career. We’re both account managers and should be getting the same amount of credit from our bosses, but I worry that they’re paying more attention to him just because he speaks up so much. After watching him loudly take credit for someone else’s work, it makes me not even want to speak up in meetings.
Mansplaining is a condescending, arrogant, and entitled expression of privilege. I’ve also seen white people acting out the same behaviors you describe to people of color, and cis straight people taking over conversations around the gender spectrum. ’Splaining of all sorts is often done by people who expect to be recognized for sharing their opinions. People who have historically not been heard bear the brunt of being ’splained to by people who are used to holding privilege and doing all of the ’splaining. Workspaces that allow people to ’splain to other people—mansplaining or otherwise—prioritize some people’s experience over others’ and allow for people to systematically go unheard. To create environments where people are respected and can contribute in meaningful ways, these behaviors need to be addressed and dismantled.
Mansplaining is one of many ’splaining behaviors that is a symptom of privilege. It’s an important one to address, and it’s the one affecting you right now. I’ll zero in on mansplaining, but I thought it was important to not limit this issue only to men explaining things to women.
Bridget Read offers a useful working definition that we’ll use here, writing, “Mansplaining encapsulates the sexist, condescending tendency men can exhibit in classrooms, at work, and in casual conversation to assume that they know more about a topic than a woman, no matter what it is or what her credentials are.”
While I have a lot of opinions—and experience—with mansplaining, I thought that given how prevalent the topic is, from Rebecca Solnit’s landmark 2008 essay to charts aimed at explaining the behavior to men to this week, when #mansplainingin5words was trending in the U.S., it would be good to get an additional perspective.
I spoke with Kim Fox, one of the most senior leaders at the Philadelphia Inquirer, about your question. As product director for editorial innovation, Fox works with a range of people and teams, from web developers to executive leadership. I regularly coach women in leadership, and I’ve worked with Fox on some of the challenges that she has faced over the years. I’ve noticed how she’s worked to create environments where more people feel heard. When we got on the phone, one of the first things she said to me was, “I think that mansplaining and overtalking go together; they’re kind of in the same family. It’s exhausting, especially if you’re at the table with very few women.”
In order to mitigate the impacts of this mansplainer on you and your career, you need to address his behavior and how it’s impacting your work. Having a mansplainer on your staff is causing you to shrink away from participating, both in meetings and in conversations, which means that other people aren’t hearing from you. You have more power than you think—to change the culture there and to advocate for your ideas.
I want you to feel empowered to take up more space. Speaking up in meetings is just one place to get credit for your ideas. If the meetings are insufferable right now, you need to make sure you’re advocating for your work in other places. I hope that you are documenting your ideas and if you’re not, start now. Document your pitches and big ideas in writing, whether that’s in email, memos, or planning documents. Keep a list of your big accomplishments at work. Share your wins and impacts with your supervisor regularly—a short email or weekly update goes a long way (those accomplishments reflect well on them too.) Documenting isn’t about showing off. It’s about building a case for how you get things done and what the impact can be. Own your accomplishments.
If you want to make your mansplainer more aware of his behavior, you can try. Here’s the thing: People with little self-awareness generally don’t realize that they aren’t very self-aware. Fox has noticed this too.
“I’m a big believer that often we assume that people are aware of their conduct,” Fox said. “Self-awareness is sorely lacking in business across the board; it’s not gender specific.”
While mansplaining can be frustrating to witness, it’s not always helpful to call people out. Fox tried that approach in the past, and didn’t see the results she wanted.
“There was a time where I decided I was just going to start calling people out,” she said. “I was exhausted and over it. Some people got it. For many, it made me come across as bitter. Going for the jugular on this issue wasn’t helpful—it put people in an uncomfortable spot in a public setting. In some places, people didn’t realize they were doing it so it really blindsided them.”
If you want to confront the mansplainer, try talking to him one-on-one. You might find that when you do, he doesn’t realize how he’s been coming off. Focus on how you’re feeling about his behavior, don’t attack him. Personally, you can draw a line about what’s okay and not okay when you talk with him. If he starts talking over you, tuning you out, or offering advice you never asked for, you can gently but firmly tell him that you’ve got expertise to share. In the last Work Space column, I shared tips for tackling difficult conversations that would be useful if you’re looking to go this route. If you would prefer not to tackle it yourself because—I don’t know—maybe he has mansplained to you what mansplaining is, you can also ask a male ally in your office to bring it up to him.
My please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is to find ways to engage men in changing the culture at work. Research shows that at organizations where men take part in addressing gender parity, 96% of organizations report making progress, compared to only 30% when women tackle it alone.
Changing the culture overall takes a group effort. If women are systematically not being heard, that’s a bigger issue than one man taking up all the air in the room.
While women amplifying women works well in some situations and has gotten some much deserved attention, if there aren’t a lot of women around the table, you’re not going to be able to use this. There’s also the possibility of creating conflict if someone feels that women are exerting pressure as a group. This is one of the many double standards that the patriarchy reinforces—some men who mansplain are likely to think women are “ganging up on them” for anything, and they may see women as confrontational or in conflict just for asserting their right to be heard. Nevertheless, be strategic—any man with that response is not going to be one of your allies as you work to build a better environment.
“I’m a big advocate for building male sponsors and male advocates around me. Making men feel threatened doesn’t help,” Fox said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about solving a problem together. If you go after them too hard, you’ve ended the conversation before it’s started.”
You can start small with people you’re comfortable with. Let them know that you want their help, both in stopping the mansplainer and educating other men about how that behavior is affecting women. Ask men to also amplify women in meetings, giving women credit for ideas and gently correcting other men who try to own ideas that women have brought up previously. Ask them to use phrases like, “As Mary said before” and “I remember that Mary had encouraged us to think about that a few weeks ago; I’m glad you brought it up again” to show that you’re building on previous conversations and give credit where it’s due.
By engaging male allies, you’re not just asking women to do the work of changing culture. Sharing articles is a great way to give well-meaning men practical tips and more context, with the added bonus of grounding the conversation in something bigger than one person’s experience. Kim and I are both fans of Harvard Business Review’s how men can become better allies to women.
In order to get support from leadership, you may need to make them more aware of the issue as well. Bring up the issue in one-on-one meetings with your mentors at work, male allies, or other people you feel comfortable with. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your direct manager or senior leadership, seek out a higher-up friend who can become an ally and also provide tips for how to approach the right people. Documenting how it affects women across the organization is helpful to reinforce that this isn’t a personal issue of yours, but it’s happening across the board. Focus on what you can do to build a work culture in which people feel comfortable and heard.
“I tried the direct approach, and what has worked much better for me is asking, ‘How do we create psychologically safe, collaborative, and supportive workplaces for everyone, regardless of your gender identification?’” said Fox. “Instead of letting your frustration get the best of you and going right at the person and making them feel threatened.”
By tackling the issue in this way, you have a bunch of people who are trying to solve a problem together about how to make sure people feel heard.
Changing culture takes work and buy-in from people with power. Encourage leadership to think about who gets a seat at the table, which includes recruiting, hiring, and promoting people. Talk with your allies and mentors about how you might work together to bring the issue up to management in a way that will be productive.
Changes in leadership made a major impact where Fox works. “Just diversifying the room is helpful. I can’t emphasize that enough; it’s been game-changing. A few women have joined senior ranks since I joined,” she said. “As there are more women joining us at the table, people have reactions. When mansplaining happens, women bristle, and men notice that.”
Sending you good vibes,
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—You don’t have to become a manager to grow your career
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—Putting politics aside to close the skills gap
—How to approach conversations when your coworkers drive you nuts
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