Let’s be clear from the get-go on this one.
Some people in positions of power often seek to exclude those less powerful than themselves. Often, they seek to diminish others’ contributions to collective achievement. These people are often men. Those less powerful are often women. These collective achievements are invariably what functioning public services depend upon. So, whether you are reading this as a man or as a woman, as long as you are a public servant who cares about their work, this one’s for you.
‘Mansplaining’ and ‘manterrupting’ together form a dual-pronged attack that takes several forms in day-to-day work environments. Sometimes, a man in a position of power will discount a woman’s point of view, only to affirm it later when another man offers it to him — sometimes word-for-word. It can happen right when a woman is speaking, and those who wield power choose at that moment to start side-conversations with each other, or begin to cough, or use the bathroom, or start scrolling on their smartphones. Sometimes, a woman will simply be interrupted, mid-sentence, in plain sight of everyone.
These terms have fairly wide applications, because they describe situations that occur in most cultural contexts. Powerful men consistently ignore proposals, comments or explanations offered by women, then take credit for them, or else accredit them to other men. A man who mansplains typically insists on telling a woman something she obviously already knows, so as to establish a psychological advantage, whereby he is always in charge.
Recent data suggests that women experience at least one of the above scenarios six times a week, or 312 times a year. That’s once a day, with a little extra thrown in. So how should we, as female public servants, deal with this? Here’s my advice:
First, confront mansplaining or manterrupting the moment it happens. Not later by email, or by Whatsapp. Be direct. This is the best way to ensure that the message is received. It is also a good opportunity to send a message to those observing the same behaviour that you know how to be assertive and that you know the limits of non-professional behaviour.
Be the one to interrupt the interruption! There are elegant ways to interrupt, especially if it is to stop an interruption made to your speech, and even more so if it is to stop people explaining something you have already demonstrated knowledge of. It’s only fair that you can finish explaining your ideas. Some examples of things you can say are: “Hey, I understand that, so let’s continue with the points I was making” or “Thank you, you don’t need to explain, I understand that point clearly. As I was saying.” Alternatively, you can say: “I really value your point, but leave it with me, I’m taking care of that personally.” Whatever you do, don’t sound like you’re apologising. Don’t start the sentence with: “I’m sorry”, or even, “I’m sorry but,”. It is not your place to apologise. Just tell him you don’t need his explanation.
If the situation persists, address the person directly in a separate conversation. Say upfront: “I’ve noticed you tend to interrupt me, and explain the things I’m saying. I need you to please let me finish…”
Try an amplification strategy. This is another strategy to neutralise condescending behaviours that seek to make your contributions invisible. Coordinate with supervisors and colleagues beforehand so that, in the event that these situations occur in your next meeting, they vocally give you credit for your contribution as soon as you make your points. This will stop the mansplainer or manterrupter in their tracks.
Visibly set a limit. When these situations get out of hand, raise a hand. Use body language. Raise your hand and, with a firm tone of voice, demand that they let you speak. Sometimes it is useful to generate uncomfortable silences (accompanied by a face of disapproval). Sometimes this combination tends to work wonderfully. If nothing is working, sometimes it is necessary to end the discussion, including the meeting, and propose that it be resumed later.
Say it like it is
Finally, try pivoting to a third party. If nothing works out with the mansplainer/manterrupter, look at another colleague or supervisor and comment very calmly: “Do you see how difficult it is to have a constructive dialogue with people like [him], who interrupt?” or “Do you see why you can’t talk with this person?”
I started this wanting to be clear, and that includes wanting to be truthful. The experiences I’ve described in this article are ones we all, men and women alike, go through in our time at work. After all, they have to do with human egos, and what power does to them. But historical power structures, such that they are, mean that it tends to be women who experience these forms of belittlement as a matter of routine.
A person’s aspiration when they enter a workspace, be it within an organisation or a company, is to grow, to assume new responsibilities, and to be able to influence the work agenda. Without learning to navigate situations where their contributions are struck off, suppressed or made invisible, women simply cannot realise their ambitions.