Sunday, October 09, 2016

Man Mansplaining

Cliff Clavin, Poster Boy of Male Answer Syndrome since 1992
I understand the irony -- even the audacity -- of a man writing about mansplaining. In my defense, my purpose here is to share some resources written by others about the phenomenon, in hopes of helping both men and women to navigate communication better -- in the workplace, in classrooms, and in everyday life. I recently shared all of these resources with students in my senior seminar, which includes a lot of work on career readiness.

What Is It?

For many, the September 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was an introduction to the term "mansplaining." In her article Donald Trump’s Interruptions of Hillary Clinton are Familiar to Women, Boston Globe correspondent Carly Sitrin explains that it is a problematic communication pattern that goes far beyond these individuals.

Mansplaining is a relatively new term for a specific kind of behavior whose general type was identified in the 1990s. In his Male Answer Syndrome post on Dear Artist, Robert Glenn provides a good introduction to the broader phenomenon known as Male Answer Syndrome.

The term was originated by Jane Campbell in 1992, appearing first in Details magazine and then more broadly in Utne Reader (to which my favorite librarian and I had a subscription at the time, thankfully). Neither of those sources is readily available, but computer scientist Anand Natrajan has posted an unformatted version on their site.

How Does It Grow?

After introducing all of these articles to my students, I thought a bit about two factors that tend to foster too much conversational confidence in men while diminishing it in women.

For example, it has been shown that boys and girls are about equal in their math aptitude -- both as tested and as self-reported -- until middle school After that, a divergence begins that is largely explained by communication patterns in classrooms. It has been shown that the amount of time an instructor will wait for a student to solve a problem varies greatly between male and female students, regardless of the teacher's gender. In other words, teachers generally offer more encouragement to male students by waiting optimistically for them to arrive at answers, while more quickly passing over female students as soon as they hesitate to answer a question.

Actress and mathematician Danica McKellar spoke about girls and math on NPR a number of years ago and has written several books on the subject.

Male-centric conversation is reinforced in film. An amazing number of films -- including some I very much enjoy otherwise -- fail to rise above the very low bar of the Bechdel Test. A film passes the test if the following conditions are met just once:

  1. The movie has to have at least two named women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man
A surprising number of films -- even films made in 2016, after the test has been well-known for years -- fail the test. See a complete list at This is not to suggest that every movie should have female characters inserted into the story in such a way to pass the test. But it does show how accustomed we have begun to hearing only male voices.

What To Do?

What to do with all of this insight? Venture capitalist Chris Lyman suggests learning one powerful phrase, and using it whenever one is caught by the urge to supply empty answers: I Don't Know.

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