Picture this: You’re a senior woman in a meeting describing the negative impact the firm’s latest marketing campaign has had on business, when a more junior male employee not even in the marketing department chimes in and explains how the campaign could have performed better.
This scenario—where a man often inaccurately explains something to a woman in a condescending tone—is mansplaining.
Much like “hepeating” and “mommy brain”, the modern made-up word has crept its way into workplaces to highlight the different experience male and female workers face.
For employers, it may be easier to brush off these constantly evolving terms, than face them head-on.
However, new research shows that mansplaining has a very real impact on women at work, including being less likely to speak frequently after it happens, which has a knock-on effect on productivity and job satisfaction.
The effect of mansplaining on female employees
Researchers Caitlin Briggs, Danielle Gardner and Ann Marie Ryan at Michigan State University and Colorado State University conducted three studies to uncover how men and women react differently to condescending communication and interruptions.
In one study, 128 participants were asked to imagine they’d been appointed to a small work committee charged with allocating bonus funds to deserving employees.
After reviewing descriptions of the shortlisted employees, the participants went into a meeting with two actors, one of whom questioned whether they’d understood the nature of the task and proceeded to mansplain it to them.
Both male and female actors read the following script, which sounds all too familiar to many women: “So, I don’t think you’re really understanding the task. It said that you’re supposed to divide the extra money between all the employees. You’re supposed to decide how much of a bonus you think each employee deserves.”
The researchers found that women would be less likely than men to work with the mansplainer again. Meanwhile, the experience led to negative reactions like discomfort in female participants—and worryingly, it causes them to question their own competency.
Men, however, didn’t react in the same way. According to the research, men are relatively unmoved by condescending conversations or interruptions.
The study suggests that this could be because when men interrupt men, it’s more often than not to say something positive like, “I agree”, in contrast to their negative interruptions of women.
Video footage also revealed that women spoke less after being mansplained to, but men weren’t verbally stumped by such interaction.
The impact of mansplaining on women’s careers—and what managers can do about it
In the short-term, mansplaining makes female workers feel deflated—at best. But in the long-term, it has serious consequences for women’s careers.
The study found that women internalize negative feedback and feelings of incompetence after being talked down to by men.
Even in high-performing women, this leads to inaccurately lowering their own self-evaluations on tasks and opting out of the chance to earn more money.
Plus, as career progression and pay rises are often unfairly attached to being able to shout out about your successes, women may therefore be passed over for promotions.
Meanwhile, to cope with mansplainers in the office, women are actively avoiding certain male co-workers.
Although the study notes that this is an effective strategy in some ways, (for example, protecting your own happiness), it also warns that “it may impact productivity, limit professional networks, and inhibit career progression.” This is especially the case where men in positions of power are those guilty of being condescending.
As such, the researchers advise leaders to pay attention to when, where, and why competence-questioning behaviors (i.e. mansplaining) takes place.
Other tangible actions recommended in the report include observational audits of meetings to highlight when gendered behaviors may be occurring, and training that focuses on how to appropriately raise doubts on others’ work.
“Activities that would help assess the prevalence and impact of competence-questioning behavior at the organizational level should be seen as important,” the researchers write, while adding that “competence-questioning behavior is likely to negatively influence employees’ job performance, job satisfaction, and work engagement.”
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