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Distracting the mansplainer August 1, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, grad school, research, societal commentary.
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I used to really think that if I presented people with enough compelling facts, I could totally convince them to change their minds about things.  I try to operate that way myself, but it took me a good, long time to realize that’s not how most people think.  Not only did it take me a long time, but it took a lot of arguments and hurt feelings.  (I’ll admit that I still don’t get the way people view things a lot of times, and it really troubles me when I don’t understand how someone could have come to a particular view.  I’ll hammer at it for days trying to understand…which is usually futile because they’re basing their judgement, often times, on experiences I wouldn’t know about.)

I also discovered that arguing with a lot of men really doesn’t work.  I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure what does, but I have run into a fair bit of the “mansplaining” phenomenon.  Technical guys, in particular, love to tell women how to do things because women just obviously cannot wrap their little brains around those complex things that men do.

Even if she’s got degrees in physics and engineering.

Today I got mansplained again…and it nearly turned into a knock-down drag-out type ordeal.  Fortunately, I’ve learned that, at some point, you need to turn an argument into something constructive or it will get you nowhere.

I had to try to explain to someone that my widget didn’t seem to be compatible with their docking station.  They were convinced that my widget had a bunch of design problems and they couldn’t see how it would work in any docking station.  I tried to explain that I had already used it in several docking stations, and even in their own docking station!  But when it was in their docking station, I could only communicate with modem and not with ethernet.  It didn’t matter.  This person kept insisting the problem was that my widget was the wrong size and shape, and if I happened to get it working, it was working in only one place and as a result of luck.  And every time, I would get a lecture on how to design widgets properly.

It almost got to the point of shouting, and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I grabbed my widget and his docking station and made it fit.  He was shocked.  You see, me saying that it fit really didn’t matter.  I am obviously not smart enough to know when the widget fits properly or not, and in his estimation, it shouldn’t have fit.  But it did.

It also turned out to be the right thing to do because suddenly he could see what sorts of communications problems the widget had and was distracted from his theoretical notions of appropriate widget dimensions to that actual problem at hand.  In about a half hour, we had the kinks worked out so that the widget could use both modem and ethernet.

At this point, the person asked me why I hadn’t talked to him about the problem before.  Apparently he didn’t realize that I had and that, each time, he insisted my widget must be the wrong size.  I would assume that he knew better and would go off, searching out the problem, only to find that the problem still seemed to be with the communications protocols.  Each time it happened, I would try to provide some proof, which would be dismissed with a wave of the hand and, “That can’t be the problem,” regardless of the evidence I’d generated.  So why hadn’t I talked to him?  Because he’d diagnosed the problem before I even spoke to him and wouldn’t even look at any evidence to the contrary, citing how his own background put him in a much better position to figure out the problem.



1. fargojones - August 1, 2012

I apologize on behalf of male douchebags everywhere.


2. ytakery - August 2, 2012

Anecdotal evidence and evidence of the senses (which makes anecdotes like your fun blog post) beats factual evidence every time in people’s minds.

Men tend to be worse in their spheres of influence and women in theirs. I imagine since you work in a mostly male field, science, you mostly come into conflict with men. Most of your anecdotes are from men.

I’d imagine he had lots of past anecdotes with widgets not fitting so he defaulted to that idea with intellectual laziness.


3. Mados - August 7, 2012

I have been mansplained frequently in a different male-dominated field… farm work, and it used to be a massive source of frustration and work-dissatisfaction.

I worked on farms for about seven years. Most of my co-workers and bosses were male of the gut feeling driven type and tended to prefer to solve technical problems solely based on anecdotical knowledge and experience.

It seemed to be the default perception by some of these guys that women just can’t get the nature of technical difficulties. So when these guys tried to solve a technical problem they would ignore my questions about what happened… even when the problem was with a essential piece of machinery for my work and I couldn’t go on without it, and I would be fuming feeling helplessly under-informed, under-utilised and extremely annoyed/hostile to these guys.

During the last years I used this strategy, and it helped: I would skim/read pretty much all instruction manuals for relevant machinery before encountering any issues. I had realised that the guys would not update me about relevant issues, so I hoped to get my head around it in a more theoretical/general way instead. So that I would pick up key points just by observation and listening to what they said to each other rather than rely on being informed directly. A key strength of mine is that I can analyse & synthesise written / well structured information efficiently and draw associations quickly (= good at brainstorming solutions in a team) … which means that I am not too bad at reading instruction manuals, unlike most others.

So, then when there was a problem and a male co-worker was on it, I would patiently wait for him to run tired in his gut feeling procedures while I in my head ran through things I’d read and not necessarily understood the implications of at the time of reading (now observing the real life implications). I would wait for the right moment and then pull out my joker: the instruction manual! 🙂

and say:

1. The manual says problem X may be caused by Y. Is it that one?… What do you think?

[guy denies importance but starts to pay attention and think about the parts I point out]

2. If that is the case, maybe we can try Z… or what do you think?

[guy starts to try it out as a last resort and starts to recall relevant theories he has been taught in farm school, for example]

3. If that doesn’t help, the manual also says that it may be WQX, located XXX…

[Guy, now listening & onto it, solves the problem.

or: I try something and it works. Guy is shocked and disbelieving, but reluctantly appreciative.

or: someone else gets attracted to the investigation (as people do) and solves it, building on the already tried solutions and the summarised info from the instruction book

or: we have to realise that we can’t solve it but get a better idea what the problem may be and how to approach it

In either of these scenarios, the situation has turned into a constructive team problem solving process where strengths are utilised rather than ignored. More (competent) brains = more brain power = faster/better solutions, usually]

Plus, there is less tension in the workplace.


4. Mados - August 7, 2012

Uhm… Long comment alert!


5. Mados - August 7, 2012

Obviously, the strategy described above works only for relatively simple machinery which’ instruction manuals are down to Earth and relatable to tangible incidents. I didn’t mean to suggest that it would work for the highly specialised computer equipment that you are working with. So it is not advice; just a related experience.


mareserinitatis - August 7, 2012

I got what you’re saying, and it sounds like it was pretty effective. I think that asking questions is a very effective way to get people to think through the logical implications of what they’re saying…which they don’t always do as they’re saying it. 🙂

But when it doesn’t work, it gets frustrating. For instance, I could (and did) ask why the widget would fit when I put it into the docking station, and the response would be that I wasn’t paying attention because it didn’t fit. That’s when I lose my patience. My observations and knowledge need to be utilized as much as his, and when I am told I don’t even know what I’m seeing, we’ve obviously crossed a line.


Mados - August 7, 2012

Exactly… Actually your strategy does seem somewhat similar to my farm boy strategy in some regards:

You had to give up on asking questions because his presumptions prevented him from listening to you. What you said was logical, but he responded irrationally because he presumed that you could not think logically about it and therefore, that what you asked was irrelevant.

So instead you went directly to the source = fitted the widget into his docking station hands-on so he could see with his eyes what you meant. Then, having had his presumptions overruled, he began to listen or at lease see what the real problem was, and then began to solve it.


mareserinitatis - August 8, 2012

I guess this is the difference. I’m fairly certain that if I’d been a guy, he would have taken my evidence that his theory wasn’t working more seriously. I shouldn’t have had to go through the exercise of showing him exactly what was happening.


6. Mados - August 7, 2012

and also, the mansplaining got you fuming… that’s a similarity as well;-)


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