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Toronto-based communications expert Karen Donaldson says that the right body language is key when confronting a mansplainer in the workplace.Lucy Lu

When Karen Donaldson worked for a large health organization a decade ago, she routinely gave presentations to rooms full of male board members and directors.

“I was one of none,” says Ms. Donaldson, who is Black, female and looked young for her age at the time.

As she shared information on behalf of the foundation she worked for, some men in the room invariably cut in and re-explained what she’d just said. It irked her, but she didn’t have the words to assert herself and push back.

Today, Ms. Donaldson is a communication and body language expert in Toronto who works with everyone from C-suite leaders to celebrities. Not only does she now have the words to deal with mansplainers – men who offer unsolicited explanations and advice, often with a side of overconfidence and cluelessness – but she also shares her arsenal of strategies with her clients.

“We’ve been socialized to be polite, not to interrupt and not disagree,” she says. “And I believe that most women are unprepared to deal with it when it happens.”

‘What she’s trying to say is…’

The word “mansplaining” entered the cultural lexicon after Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in Guernica magazine in 2008. While she didn’t coin the term – a reader did – Ms. Solnit’s story about a wealthy man who interrupted her repeatedly to explain her own book to her sparked a social media storm, a mansplainer hotline in Sweden, brilliant and humorous flowcharts and an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018.

Mansplaining has also become a recent topic of academic research. Chelsie Smith at Carleton University in Ottawa, along with colleagues Linda Schweitzer and Katarina Lauch, interviewed nearly 500 employees in Canada and the U.S. about their mansplaining experiences. They wanted to know if men were really the main offenders in the workplace.

As it turns out, 97 per cent of all employees experienced some form of boorish behaviour at work that met the researchers’ six criteria: unsolicited and unwelcome advice; explaining a topic the target knows well; using condescending and patronizing tones; questioning a target’s knowledge; speaking with arrogance, overconfidence or persistence and explaining something incorrectly. But while the behaviour was experienced by many, 75 per cent of the time it was done by men. As well, women and gender minority individuals reported being on the receiving end of these behaviours much more often than men.

Not surprisingly, when the team published an article about their results in The Conversation, the inevitable happened.

“Throughout the comments section were commenters mansplaining to us about our research on mansplaining – which was just very meta,” says Ms. Smith, sounding amused.

The effects of mansplaining are far from funny though. The Carleton researchers found this form of “gendered incivility” led to poorer job satisfaction and feeling undervalued in the workplace. Victims were more likely to want to quit their jobs.

Exhausting and unfair

“At the core of it, it’s about undermining somebody’s competence,” says Caitlin Briggs, a graduate research fellow at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, who has also researched the effects of mansplaining.

According to Ms. Briggs’ research, women are more negatively affected than men when the offending behaviour occurs. When men were mansplained, they felt almost the same whether the offender was a woman or another man. Women, however, were more likely to say they didn’t want to work with the man again and registered the act as being biased against her gender.

What’s more, women said they talked less after mansplaining incidents.

“What are the broader consequences of these outcomes for women not participating in a meeting after they’ve been mansplained to?” says Ms. Briggs. “And if women are having these negative outcomes, what could that mean down the line for their careers?”

Lilian Chen, founder of Bar None Games, a tech start-up in New York City, says mansplaining is a big problem in her mostly male industry. And while she doesn’t mind standing up for herself, it can feel exhausting and unfair. Ms. Chen says she will sometimes bring up her professional background just to be heard – she has ample experience in the finance industry and went to Harvard Business School.

“I have prior knowledge in this space, but some men jump in and over-explain some pretty basic concepts to me,” she says. “Men don’t understand or appreciate [what we’re saying] unless we back it up and use our credentials.”

Allison Seller, a business coach in Vancouver, says she resists the urge to give too much information about her background or justify her points when she’s being mansplained to, because it just amplifies and encourages more of the same.

“Once you’re trying to prove yourself, you’re actually doing the dance,” she says. “You’re mimicking their behaviour because it’s coming from a place of insecurity. If I try to defend myself, I’m actually saying I do need to prove myself.”

Stopping mansplainers in their tracks

Fortunately, there are ways to shut down bad behaviour. It’s a matter of choosing the best one for the situation, and not letting a case of “himpathy” – feeling sorry about the shame you may cause the man doing the mansplaining – hold you back.

In their article, Ms. Smith and her colleagues at Carleton University point to the book Subtle Acts of Exclusion as a potential resource for leaders aiming to stamp out gendered mistreatment in workplaces.

When it comes to curbing mansplaining in the moment, Ms. Donaldson advises starting with non-verbal body language.

“You need to make direct eye contact with the person who mansplains,” she says. Then, turn your body so you’re squarely facing him. “Sometimes we look away and say something so it sounds like sarcasm or an undercut. No. We want them to know, this is about you.”

Next comes the verbal part. Say the man’s name, and be specific, Ms. Donaldson says. An example might be, “Sam, I’m speaking right now,” or “Mike, I’m fully qualified to speak about this.” Pause. Ensure they’ve heard you. Then continue speaking.

Ms. Donaldson say that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable taking that sort of tone with, say, their boss, they can try this instead: “You know, Steve, I appreciate the comment and I’m fine to continue.” Or, “Let me continue and if there’s still a question, I can answer it.”

If you’re going to see the mansplainer on a regular basis, it’s important to close the loop, adds Ms. Donaldson. Take him aside and explain how reiterating your part of the presentation was unprofessional and belittling.

“Tell them what you want them to do next time instead,” she explains. “Say, ‘In the future, if you have something to say about my presentation, can you just wait until the end and I’ve opened it up for questions?’”

Easy? Not always. But it’s time to stop talking about how prevalent mansplaining is and do something about it, says Ms. Donaldson. And that includes stepping in when you see other women being mansplained.

“How do we shut it down for other women too? When I see it, I call that bad boy out,” she says. “I’m not waiting for [her] to say something.”

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