Friday, January 25, 2013

The Problem with "Mansplaining"

The "mansplaining" meme, which captures the phenomenon of men being patronizing to women in conversation, is trending on the internet. There is a Tumblr here; a Hillary Clinton meme there. While it is good that women are speaking out about sexism, there are some issues with using the term "mansplaining." Not only does it distract from the real problems, it also perpetuates behaviors that prevent progress. Allow me to mansplain.

The term "mansplaining" conflates two issues: that men tend to explain things in a manner that may be interpreted as patronizing and that people explain things to women with the assumption that they are ignorant. The first can largely be explained by conversational differences between men and women: in Talking from 9 to 5, Georgetown sociolinguist Deborah Tannen discusses how in conversations, (American) men tend to seek a dominant position, while women tend to prevent the other person from taking a subordinate position. Men also often use knowledge (for instance, statistics about sports teams) to establish this dominance. It is no wonder, then, that conversations between men and women often end up having the man explaining things in a condescending manner to women. Rather than mocking men, it is more productive to create awareness of these conversational differences. Men can use this awareness to be more careful when talking to women (or anyone else from a culture where establishing dominance is not the norm) and women can use this awareness to perceive the situation differently (for instance, be less offended or intimidated) when talking to men.

Because it brings in stereotypes about men vs. women, the "mansplaining" distracts from the real issue: that people are often condescending to women. In Why So Slow?, psychologist Virginia Valian explains that this often because of statistical bias. Using heuristics to make snap judgments is how we are able to effectively deal with overwhelming amounts of input. Using these same heuristics is often why people (men and women) assume women are less capable. Especially in technical fields, there are fewer capable women. Thus, given any specific woman, she is more likely to be ignorant than knowledgeable. Thus a reasonable snap judgment is to assume that a woman knows less than she does. Fortunately, we can second-guess our snap judgments. Awareness can again mitigate this problem: if we know we are likely to make a snap judgment that is wrong, we can be conscious of these situations and adjust our judgments accordingly. In overcoming snap judgments, it also helps to focus on specific attributes of a person instead of whether they are a man or a woman.

The term "mansplaining" perpetuates this gender-based statistical bias by focusing attention on the male gender rather than the behavior. The fact that this term exists makes it more likely that people will assume someone is "mansplaining" simply because he is a man. This is not productive for men who may be trying to overcome "mansplaining" tendencies. It increases the chances that the other person will dismiss what the "mansplainer" is saying outright, giving him less opportunity to practice having conversations with people who may not be accustomed to his dominance-seeking style of speaking. Also, the term "mansplaining" distracts from the fact that women can be sexist and condescending as well.

The "mansplaining" meme has been useful for raising awareness both about the tendency of men to come off as patronizing and the tendency of people to be condescending to women. But it distracts from the real problems and perpetuates gender-based bias. To work towards a solution for productive cross-gender conversation, we should focus on specific behaviors rather than gender stereotypes and on listening rather than on pointing fingers.

3 comments:

rachel said...

1 -I think the increased awareness this meme has created deserves an earlier shout out than the last paragraph!

2 - personally I feel like this meme does at least an okay job of pointing the finger at a trait (patronizing speech) that is connected to say, American ideas of masculinity, instead of at men.

3 - I feel like "Especially in technical fields, there are fewer capable women. Thus, given any specific woman, she is more likely to be ignorant than knowledgeable." is perpetuating some really negative things too?

Jean said...

Good points, Rachel.

As for the third point, I am explaining the statistical bias that causes people to condescend to women. This is one of the problems of associating traits with gender. This is also one of the reasons associating condescension with being male is dangerous.

Radhika said...

Nice article. I like the two-different-problems separation. On the second note, last year there was an IEEE news email that had the subject headlines: "Ardino, so simple even your mom can program it". Not too long after, there was a long apology email from IEEE, but not before I had the once-again depressing feeling that it wasn't surprising that most CS women aren't rushing to advertise that they are parents when their own communities use that term to epitomize ignorance.

The idea that women are ignorant as a group is now more than an issue of statistics, its coded into our way of speech and into our conversational culture.

Certainly being condescending is not limited to just men. But I do think the reason that it persists in academia is because the majority is male and that majority is just fine with the way things are. I don't think there is a way out without laying some blame on male culture and the male majority that perpetuates it.