“Mansplaining,” its Greater Social Implications, and My Experience in Academia

“Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.”- Rebecca Solnit


                        “How It Works,” xkcd

For those of you unfamiliar with Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things To Me, ” I highly recommend you give it a good, in-depth read. This is no angry rant preaching to the mainstream feminist choir, I promise. She offers up a straight-forward, honest critique of the widely accepted arrogance of men in the academic world. Her experiences deeply resonated with countless women, including myself, and quickly generated a wider examination of gender-based preconceptions in academia and beyond. If you have heard the term “mansplaining” floating around the academic  zeitgeist, or seen the popular and humorous blog “Academic Men Explain Things To Me,”  Solnit’s article is what inspired their conception. While stories of “mansplaining” are easily digestible offer a platform for much needed discussion, I am wary that we are focusing on a very narrow characteristic of a much broader social norm. The issue at hand is not as simple disagreeing women, or not taking their intellect seriously. The issue I am trying to define has more to due with the filter in which society views women. A filter, that seems to become stronger in fields still dominated by men.

I now realize how greatly these themes have shape my experience as a female student, academic, and professional.* What I find unfortunate is how long it took me to recognize this connection.  I grew up being told that gender bias in the professional world was nearly a thing of the past. Even as I grew older, and tried to do my best to embody the ideals of third-wave feminism, I, ironically, remained completely oblivious to a characteristic of gender bias that was thrown in my face daily. This was the consistent assumption that I was less informed, less intelligent, or less experienced than a man who was speaking to me. Even some of the most supportive male mentors in my life would first experience several incidents of shock when I surpassed their low expectations before they took my intelligence seriously.  These expectations came to be something I expected, and something I felt was deserved. I didn’t realize that people were viewing other women in such a light, I thought I was personally doing something to warrant such low expectations.

To be absolutely clear, this is by no means some man-hating rant** (another belittling gender stereotype thrown at feminist commentators.) Women also belittle other women, men belittle other men, and women belittle men. Of course they do! All the time! The difference is that those instances do not typically relate to widely held preconceptions based on gender. In fact, I would argue that often times the men that patronize the intelligence of women are the most likely to be unaware of their bias, perhaps even well-intentioned.  In my experience, it is the men who are most convinced that they lack any gender bias who are the greatest offenders.  Rarely has a man in my life explicitly told me I couldn’t do something  because I am a woman. But after enough people, nearly always men, implied that I had little potential, I would limit myself. I have stepped away from everything from building a campfire,  to applying to universities, only to watch far less qualified boys and men confidently step into those roles.

What’s frustrating is how long it took me (and it appears, countless other women) to realize how misplaced these assumptions are. Rather than getting angry, I internalized others’ view of me and and, over time, reshaped their false assumptions into crippling self doubt. The few instances when males told me that I was less intelligent, less qualified, or less able because I am a woman, I worked relentlessly to prove them wrong. But those instances are not what I am focusing on. The danger of the more subtle and un-checked cultural assumptions is that women do not necessarily see where they are coming from and how unjustified they are. I have never been told, or believed, that women are worse at math than men. I knew for a fact that I had higher scores on my math SAT than any boy in my high school Calculus class, and I knew several other consistently high-achieving girls in a similar situation. Not a single one of us auditioned for, nor were encouraged by our male science teachers, to join our school’s academic team. But I didn’t avoid my first public opportunities to be labeled an “intellectual” because I am a woman. I avoided them because I did not see myself as deserving. woman or not. Now those boys have gone on to become successful engineers, businessmen, and Ph.d candidates. And they are absolutely deserving of their hard-earned success! What I am confused about is where they received their confidence to continue these pursuits, while myself and other females with equal or greater potential were not encouraged to develop equal self-confidence. Judging by the lack of self-promotion among female professors and the gender gap in academic citation this appears to be a consistent characteristic of even highly successful women at the top of their fields.

Although I am very passionate about them, I did not personally pursue my chosen areas of study because they are where my strengths lie (they really, really aren’t.) As a sensitive, “artsy,” young woman, I was told the arts or humanities would be more accepting and were saddled with less academic pressure (an unqualified judgement of more female dominated fields). As a woman, advisers of mine admittedly evaluated my career potential based more on my affinity for scarves and thrift store clothing, than my individual skill sets and  intellectual achievements, something I don’t believe would have happened if I was a man. I trusted that they knew something I didn’t and unquestionably internalized their misguided perception.
To be clear, I am by absolutely no means implying that the humanities are not as every bit as rigorous as the hard sciences or more male-dominated fields. Far from it. But I was a dyslexic with severe language-based learning disabilities.  If evaluating my academic assets and potential, any unbiased advisor would have pushed me into a math or science field, NEVER one that requires incredibly lengthy reading and writing and the mastery of multiple foreign languages to achieve high success. Perhaps they never expected for me to reach such a level in the first place?  I love my areas of study, truly. But to be frank, I am not suited for the typical path to success they require.  I am determined to make a name for myself doing what I am passionate about, but that requires proving many people wrong, which is both exhausting and discouraging.  Unfortunately, my identity as a female seems to add more greatly to academics’ preconceptions of me as I slowly progress further into these fields, perhaps just as greatly as it would have been in more male-orientated fields.

What has shocked me most as I have reach higher levels of academia, as well as the fine arts and museum sectors,  is how strongly positions of power are dominated my males. The low levels of the hierarchal pyramids in these fields are entirely dominated by women, but men are consistently the ones who reach positions of power and high esteem. Clearly, there is some sort of message being given to smart women  that they are less deserving. However subtle  this message may be, it has a far-reaching impact.

The message that I hope you all take out of my post is how necessary it is to take the time to evaluate the preconceptions you may unknowingly hold of others, or others may hold of you. A practice that I feel is particularly valuable for both learners and educators, at any age or stage in their career. The challenge for any learner should be to justify others’ high expectations of them, never to prove others’ low expectations wrong.

* This post deals exclusively with my own,very personal, experiences. I do not speak for all females as a whole. I also recognize that many of the issues I mention are felt by people of color, low income communities, and non-cisgendered individuals, among other populations, however, I cannot speak on a personal level about such experiences.

**I do feel that there is, in fact, a problematic bias towards talented males in our society as well. Young male students are often  discouraged from pursuing careers in  creative fields, in part, due to their low income potential. However, I do not feel that such biases have as far-reaching and negative impacts as these biases typically reverse in the higher ranks of the creative fields. I do feel pressure on boys to obtain careers with a salary capable of supporting a single-income household is an unfair expectation, the notion is out-of-touch with economic reality, and people of all genders. However, in the long run, this gender imbalance encourages men to excel, while women are continually assumed to have weaker aspirations and their professional personas are tinged with doubt about their aspirations and determination.


One comment on ““Mansplaining,” its Greater Social Implications, and My Experience in Academia

  1. Michelle Repper
    October 16, 2013

    This post is absolutely incredible. Each experience you describe is something I have dealt with personally (mostly coming from male family members), and I only began to identify as such when I went to college. I was so lucky to have an advisor who respected me, and expected me to excel at every moment. I remember us having an argument one time when he was commenting on a thesis draft I gave him to read:

    him: It’s good.
    me: It’s OK.
    him: No. I said ‘It’s good.’
    me: It’s OK.

    And we kept going until I left the table to get a coffee. I have fought for my entire adult life to feel confident in my work and my abilities, and I’m still struggling. And regardless of how many times I’m told that I’m a badass, or that my work is extremely good, I’m never able to accept these things as reality, much less assume them as reality.

    Thank you. I hope I encounter you at some point in the field!

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