I recently attended an international security event. As is normally the case, fewer than twenty percent of the people attending were women. After a series of initial briefings we were divided up into working groups. In one of the smaller groups the man to my right knew me well. He knew my expertise. The man to my left didn’t. During the presentations the man to my left carefully explained the matter under discussion to me. The man to my right grimaced. I endured the explaining politely, and then attempted to demonstrate through my interactions that I knew something about the topic that was being explained to me. Actually, I’ve written a book or two on it.
The first issue here, then, is that I had my own area of expertise in international security mansplained to me. The man to my left was attempting to be helpful. But had I been a man would he have assumed that lack of knowledge on my part? The man to my right didn’t say anything. He was waiting for me to reveal that, actually, I knew the topic well. And of course, for him to explain this for me would also be problematic.
Yet I didn’t stop the man to my left and correct his mistake. Why?
This brings me to my second point. I had wanted to raise issues relating to gender at the event I was attending. I was, however, the only one to do so (so far as I am aware). But I’m a woman, which made me feel like I was the token female ‘talking the gender talk’. Yet, funnily enough, all of the other people at this event had a gender too! And, can I please stress: gender was and is a highly significant variable for the topic that was at hand – it was not “gender for gender’s sake”. It would affect priorities, planning, implementation and evaluation.
In terms of how this attempt to ‘talk gender’ went down, one working group, which was made up of all men, was curious and supportive. But I don’t think they would have raised it otherwise – despite it actually being on their briefing notes. In another group, which had the most women, I was told that this was covered under other generic considerations. (I wondered if the other women in the room might be concerned about being stuck with the ‘woman talking about gender’ role. Indeed, this is why I avoided researching gender for much of my early career, aware of the possibility of being pigeonholed as ‘the gender expert’– better to make your name in a more ‘serious’ part of international relations in ‘hard’ international security issues).
In the working group with my ‘mansplainer’, the other man seated to my right had noted my clumsy attempts to bring gender into the discussion. With a friendly and known quantity sitting next to me to lean on, I had directed my comments about the importance of gender to him. He deflected, amplified and straightened out my bumbling attempt to bring gender more fruitfully into the room by loudly stating that gender was an issue that should engage us all. The response was warm.
I had a ‘male ally’ in the room. And I needed one. It’s a bit like Māori or minority groups having ‘white allies’ – you don’t want Pakehā to explain everything on your behalf but it can damn well help to get your message across to the audience you are trying to reach. It also relieved the other woman in the room of potentially having to be the one to support me too, should she have wanted to.
In response to the joint efforts of myself and the man to my right, my mansplainer did ‘get’ some of what we were talking about, heartily agreeing that a consideration of gender ratios might be useful. (Gender 101: Add Women and Stir). It’s a start. But perhaps I should have started our engagement on all of this by finding a way to ask for him to not mansplain. Maybe next time. But whilst I gather my courage, I thought I would at least try to start this process by writing this piece.
So please, if you are a man, and you find yourself explaining something to a woman, ask yourself whether you are assuming she doesn’t already know what you’re telling her because she is a woman. Ask yourself if you would be explaining things to her if she were a man. If not, then you are ‘mansplaining’. Women’s voices can bring value to so many spaces – be it the boardroom, peace talks or the academic conference – if only they can be heard and seen as authoritative. (Gender 201: Listen to Women). Be a male ally not a mansplainer. You’ll find it rewarding on many fronts.
Beth Greener is Associate Professor of International Relations at Massey University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and will be speaking at the upcoming New Zealand Defence White Paper Symposium on 4 July.