How Mansplaining Harms Women in STEM

August 31, 2018

Written by: Alicen Ricard

How many women out there can relate to talking about something you’re an expert in and are interrupted by a man, who might not be an expert in the same topic, who then proceeds to explain what you’re talking about to you? This is mansplaining and we’ve all experienced it. The concept isn’t new, even if the word has only been around for the past six years or so. Women being “mansplained” in their career fields has always been a problem, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or sports careers. In the Practical Feminist podcast, one of the hosts who is a professional boxer says that men try to give her boxing advice all the time, some of it wrong, and that most of them don’t even box.

Source: @NoisyAstronomer Twitter

Mansplaining was first used to describe Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me”. In this essay she tells the story of a party she and a friend went to where the host cut her off while she was talking about her latest book to tell her about this “very important book” on the same topic that was just published. Turns out, not only was it her own book, he hadn’t even read it. When her essay was republished in 2012, the internet used the word “mansplaining” to describe what had happened to Rebecca and the term took off. The word has even been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary with the definition: "Mansplaining is, at its core, a very specific thing. It's what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does." The word may be new but the concept can be traced back to an article from 1903 called “Why Women Do Not Wish the Suffrage”.

The internet didn’t stop there, and last year a new phrase was born: hepeating. The phase was coined on Twitter by astronomer Nicole Gugliucci and her friends. She tweeted “My friends coined a word: hepeated. For when a woman suggests an idea and it's ignored, but then a guy says same thing and everyone loves it” and next thing you know, the tweet is going viral, and we have a new word to describe this behavior. Gugliucci goes on to explain that the term can be used for more than just gender; it can apply to any “minority”.

Source: @AstroKatie Twitter

So we know that this all exists, but what is the impact on women in STEM careers? So much pressure is put on women in these fields that they feel like they need to be perfect, and if someone “mansplains” something to them, it just further fuels the feeling of not being good enough. With men outnumbering women in these fields, mansplaining is certainly present. Women often feel as if they have to downplay any feminine style they may have to be taken seriously in their careers. The bias against women in STEM fields is one of the main things that stops women from going into these careers in the first place, especially tech fields.  

The Internet is a prime place to find examples of mansplaining everywhere. Twitter is especially bad at showing this type of sexism. When astrophysicist Katie Mack tweeted saying “Honestly climate change scares the heck out of me and it makes me so sad to see what we’re losing because of it.” it didn’t take long for people to start attacking her for it. One reply said “Maybe you should learn some actual SCIENCE then, and stop listening to the criminals pushing the #GlobalWarming SCAM!” Katie’s reply proved she wasn’t going to stand for any mansplaining. The scientist responded with, “I dunno, man, I already went and got a PhD in astrophysics. Seems like more than that would be overkill at this point.” Exchanges like this are hardly rare on twitter as shown by more examples here.  

Source: @kimgoodwin Twitter

How the term and concept of “mansplaining” has been received greatly varies. Some people embrace it and run with it. There are articles explaining how “not to mansplain” such as “How to Make Sure You Are Never Guilty of Mansplaining” from Men’s Journal, “The Man’s Guide to Mansplaining” from Men’s Health, and “A man’s guide to mansplaining (by a man)” from The Tab. Others are adamant that we don’t need words like mansplaining. It can make assumptions about gender and create double standards--not only men do it. A news blog from the UK argues that not all mansplaining is bad. Another article claims that men are treated badly by feminists. No matter your stance on whether mansplaining is a thing or not, and whether we should have a word for it, it is still a problem and a roadblock for women who are in STEM fields.

Privileged explaining  can cause women to be uncomfortable in their own careers and can keep women from entering STEM, or other male-dominated fields, in general. Our focus should be kept in retaining women in these fields and helping them to feel like they belong there. Maybe if people become more aware if they are mansplaining and stop it from happening, this task could be easier.

For Sweden’s amusing take on mansplaining and the hotline they set up to stop it, click here. You can also check out this list of books on mansplaining “to Give the Men in Your Life So You Don’t Have to Keep Explaining It”.