Ladies, we’ve all been there. You’ve been sitting in a conference or attending a lecture, or hell, giving the lecture, and a gentlemen pulls you aside to explain something when there is strong evidence — such as you holding your PhD in your hand — that shows that the subject matter is within your expertise. While in these moments it takes every ounce of self control to not slap this man across the face with all your strength, it is a comfort to know that you are not alone. Capturing some of the best “mansplaining moments,” the Tumblr “Academic Men Explain Things to Me” has given academic women the space and community to share their struggles establishing their voices within their professional world. Started out as a way for women to vent their mansplaining situations to an audience that can relate, this blog has quickly become a testament to the diversity, humor and wit of the growing number of women in the academic profession. Sitting down with the creator of the blog, who requested to remain anonymous, I learned about the mansplaining experience that inspired her to start this Tumblr, her own responses to this annoying male tendency and the change she hopes this blog will bring about.
What is the definition of “mansplaining”?
My definition would be when a man explains something to a woman that not only does she know, but there is probably circumstantial evidence that she knows this if he had paid attention. He assumes that he should tell her because he’s a man, as opposed to some other reason like he speaks better English, or he’s older. He just assumes because he’s a man. I think one of the things that was most striking to me as I moved up in the profession and gone up in rank was I’ve found that male students have continued to do this to me!
That’s what really brought it to my attention; I thought on some level that it would stop, and it would become clear that I have expertise in the field after publishing books on it and teaching classes. The fact that it continued made me realize that there was something quite odd about it. That’s why I think academia is a really unique study, because women in academia have documented expertise in something. It should be clear that we know about this thing, so that’s what PhD is for, but people still think that we don’t know our field. I think that is quite telling.
When was the moment when you decided you wanted to write about it?
I had gone to a conference, and there was quite a bit of mansplaining. I had a conversation with some other women there, and as soon as we broached the subject it was like everyone had an anecdote. That’s when I thought there should be a place for these stories so that people would know that they are not alone. And also, men might think about it and wonder if they do it. I’ve actually gotten to meet some guys who said that they’ve totally been doing this and are going to try and stop. It’s really exciting.
I created this on a Saturday and was just going to link to some friends who I thought would have stories and said, “Could you upload stories if you have some?” and you know, send it around to people you know. I thought once there were good numbers it won’t be obviously me, and I could post it on Facebook and start sharing it with people that way. I thought maybe by tomorrow morning it will have enough stories on it, and I got up on Sunday and checked Facebook, and it was in my feed being shared via people that I didn’t know! [laughs] It really started taking off that way.
When someone comes up and they are mansplaining to you, what is your response in the moment?
My response has changed over time. When I was more junior and more tentative, I would sort of nod and smile and just avoid that person, but I’m more confrontational now. I will interrupt and say, “Yeah, I know,” or “Yes, I’ve read the book” or “Yes, I know about that study.” There is a great story on the blog about how this guy kept trying to explain this research to her, and she kept trying to say that she knew. Finally he said, “You have to read so-and-so on this,” and she said, “I am so and so!” [laughs] I try to interject, but it’s not always easy to be heard.
What advice do you have for women dealing with mansplaining?
The thing I wish I had known when I was younger, and I hope the blog shows, is to not doubt yourself. Don’t let people make you worry that you don’t know enough. Sometimes people try to explain and suggest stuff that can make you feel like you must not know. I wish when I was younger I hadn’t let myself be intimidated, and I hadn’t thought, “Well, maybe I don’t know enough,” because I think what the blog shows is that this has nothing to do with what women know. I thought this blog would be kind of grim, but I’ve been really heartened by just how smart and funny and accomplished all these women are; they are doing amazing things. I mean, some of the women are telling stories about studying polar bears in Quebec! It’s incredible.
I was reading an article in Jezbel where the author recounts comments from his male students saying that mansplaining was “a series of feminist attacks on men.” What is your response to that?
One thing I would say is Tumblr is free. If you have lots of stories about young women trying to explain to senior male faculty members how to do their jobs, feel free to assemble that, but I doubt you’re going to get a lot. The second thing is the blog is describing a certain type of behavior that is related to sexism, but I don’t think it is describing male behavior. Mansplaining is explaining while relying on sexism, and that doesn’t characterize all male behavior. I think that’s one of the problems that people have with the term; they think it means that men can’t explain things without being condescending or being inappropriate. I don’t think that’s what the term means at all. I think that’s why having a large group of stories is important. They aren’t just isolated incidents; they form a pattern. It’s not just about giving an individual man a polygraph test to find out if he was thinking this woman didn’t know something because she was a women; it’s about the kind of repeated institutionalized behaviors that happen.
If there is one thing that you would want people to take away from this blog, what would it be?
That in many instances women are still assumed to be lesser than, and they shouldn’t be.