It has finally happened to me. I guess it was only a matter of time. In the span of my career in a male dominated industry, I have so far been talked over, had my point ignored until a man made it, and been told my body is distracting. If male readers gasp at this juncture, female readers are nodding. I’m not special – this is our life, and today it happened: ‘mansplaining’. It was baffling, infuriating and enlightening in equal measure. It was baffling because it was entirely unnecessary, infuriating because it was seemingly only obvious to me, and enlightening because its pattern was so banal.
What’s happening is deeply harmful because of that pattern, and not just to women, but to the new economy we keep touting. I’ve never thought of myself as a militant feminist, just a woman that takes as little nonsense as possible, but today changes everything. This is a crime, friends, against the future we champion. And like every crime, it follows a pattern.
Mine was a water cooler type conversation outside the office about how (if) you can motivate people who are so disengaged, for whatever reason, that they become destructive in their performance and attitude. We weren’t discussing specifics – just having an abstract conversation among colleagues and friends about managing people who are not as driven or focused as we are. It was lighthearted. It could have drifted to another topic with minimal effort. And then it happened … during a conversation that was, just like all our digital forays, exploratory, premised on the desire for exchange and learning. It was a moment of empowered vulnerability – accepting there may be things I haven’t thought of, accepting I don’t know everything there is to know about everything; testing and learning, and inviting others to join me on the journey.
That’s the premise of how we work in this brave, new fintech world. Or is it? Because the person who will sweep in to ‘mansplain’ will also take your experimentation for lack of conviction, your eagerness to learn as a sign of lacking expertise. Your empowered vulnerability – your choice to admit there are things you’re still working out – is where they will choose to strike, whether you’re a woman or a digital advocate. Sound familiar? Then so will what happened next.
He laughed. He interrupted, with a laugh, and told me the problem was easy to fix if you were willing to tackle it and only focus on what mattered. He then proceeded to explain something entirely unrelated (albeit vaguely similar) to what I was describing. The problem, as well as the intention, were entirely different – the solution (therefore) irrelevant and not applicable. Here’s the irony: my question had been around how to engage someone who currently doesn’t care. His solution was, in his words, about making difficult staff members “someone else’s problem”. Forget the fact that this is bad management, it also makes for terrible conversation. Does this sound familiar? Women and innovators alike suffer from this – the person who dismisses you entirely because you want to explore, claiming they already know the answer. Yet, it’s only to an entirely different question.
I am lots of things, but meek isn’t one of them, so I calmly (but forcefully) explained the problem was different, and that his solution was untested. It may not even work for his problem, as it was only just implemented, but anyway it didn’t apply to mine for a couple of fundamental reasons. Then the tone changed. Audience participation was sought: “See how negative some people are?” he said. Keen to dismiss other people’s success just because they didn’t think of it first.
And there you are: on the back foot. What started as a constructive and exploratory peer conversation became an apology of motives. “I’m not dismissing you – just pointing out the lack of data,” I said. “It may work. It may not. But in any case, the hypothesis is different. Your arguments are counterfactual. Plus, the ad hominem attack was really not necessary. This is really not necessary.”
“Oh, long words,” he said. “Relax.”
Now … I’m a woman, so I’m conscious that if I raise my voice and stop smiling I will be called hysterical, so I keep my voice even and measured, but I’m told to calm down anyway (and in the same voice executives told me APIs would never catch on all those years ago. Silly thing).
Our culprit knows what he’s doing. Mansplainer or old school banking apologist, he knows that the odds are stacked ever in his favour. He has found himself in a conversation he doesn’t want to be having. The attempt to belittle and dismiss didn’t work, for I persisted, so he attacks. “If my explanation isn’t correct, it’s because you didn’t explain your case adequately,” he says. Only I did. But even if I hadn’t, why did he not ask me questions? Why did he choose to resort to assuming he understood and had already solved my issue. Why did he call it “simple” before he knew what it was?
This isn’t rhetorical. I actually asked, and with a smile. But before I tell you what happened next … Do you realise how many women live through this each day? How many digital entrepreneurs? How many unnecessary and unnecessarily fraught conversations are had because a man behind a real or imaginary desk will scoff and dismiss and belittle? Too many.
And still I persisted. I calmly did what I always do: I explained. I pointed out gaps, logical fallacies, counterfactual arguments and other long words. I also pointed out that he didn’t need to have this conversation with me, but if he was going to have it, having the same conversation as me would be nice. Talking at me with irrelevant topics was neither pleasant nor useful.
I came to the table with a hypothesis and an invitation to discuss. He could have said “I don’t want to talk about this”. That’s fair and totally OK, yet he engaged, then dismissed the exercise and the challenge, belittled the effort and proposed a solution that was irrelevant. When challenged on the argument, he attacked the person. When told his solution doesn’t address the problem, he said without shame: “In that case, you didn’t explain it adequately.” It is your fault, my preexisting thought doesn’t fit the new problem. Why? Because he represents established wisdom that didn’t need to explain itself recently, and he likes it that way. More to the point, because he can.
I invited him into a conversation, one professional to another. He chose to simplify and dismiss. I gave him the option to rectify that (actually in those words). He chose a personal attack. Then I gave him the option to stop, retract and apologise, or actually salvage the conversation. I told him that I found the argument far from constructive and the attitude personally insulting (in those exact words). The response? “You’re overreacting.” And a chuckle. The reaction of the others in the room? Silence. And when I left the the conversation? A chat about the weather. I kid you not. I could hear it.
And that’s how the innocent bystanders lose their innocence, for they become accomplices to bad manners, lazy reasoning and poisonous relationships. And they’re all as damaging as each other to your business as well as our society, because do you know what you’ve just done as an audience member to this – be it a case of mansplaining or a case of dismissing digital innovation? Yup, that’s right.
One cannot be tried for the same crime twice, and since my mansplainer here committed the crime, was called out on it by yours truly in very clear terms, and a jury of his peers found him innocent by their deafening silence, he was given licence to do it again; to dismiss and confound where analysis is needed, belittle and mock where a splash of imagination could have helped the person in front of him, but even more significantly taught him something about himself, his team and his business. To keep doing all this again and again is folly. It’s a crime.
And silence is collusion. It’s how one learns it’s OK to do it. Silence is why he can (and will) continue to do it. And if you think mansplaining only hurts women, you’ve been mansplained to/at one too many times. The belief that you know best without asking any questions, the conviction that a personal attack and a cheap jibe can adequately substitute a reasoned argument, the knowledge that the status quo will be protected by those around you so all you need to do is brand difference as weirdness and deflect any challenge to your comfort zone through ad hominem attacks – that’s what drives women into silence. Which you may not care about, but it also kills innovation in your company, and that will affect profits first and then survival, so you would be wise to care.
Mansplaining is corporate arrogance by a different name; the attitude of the comfortable male executive who sneers and dismisses women, fledgling entrepreneurs, digital natives and youth in the same manner, in the office and beyond. Call it what you like for heuristic purposes, but see it for the crime it is: it’s killing exactly the sort of conversations your business needs to have to flourish in a digitally native ecosystem. It’s killing the sort of conversations society needs to have to become fairer, smarter and more connected. And not because it silences women. It’s because it kills any conversation without a predetermined outcome.
If calling someone out on sloppy reasoning, patronising tones and bad conversation skills warrants being told I’m “overreacting”, then all I have to say is buckle up.
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