A few years ago, I was working for a tech company as a copywriter. The workforce was approximately 90% male but that didn't particularly faze me, except that I had one colleague who would ignore my emails, talk down to me and reject my ideas. And it was because I was female. How did I know? He didn't speak like this to any of the men in our team.
I decided, in about my fourth week at the company, that if I didn't stand up for myself now, I would become increasingly frustrated; and that his condescending behaviour could lead to a miserable workplace experience for me. So I went in early one morning and took him aside. I asked why he didn't reply to my emails, explained that I felt sidelined in meetings and said that I sensed some conflict between us.
He turned bright red and was utterly silenced. Initially, because he thought I was about to tell him his mum had been run over - not have a word about his sexist attitude. But also because he was clearly used to treating women in this way and not to being confronted about it. He apologised, profusely, and made immediate changes to his behaviour.
At that time, I was feeling empowered by my new role and confident to challenge behaviour that didn't sit comfortably. But that's not to say I've done the same with every work relationship affected by gender imbalance, so I can see why Unionen, a Swedish union representing 600,000 private sector workers, have set up a hotline for female victims of sexist, or patronising, behaviour perpetrated by their male colleagues.
Why, if women are feeling marginalised at work and mistreated by their male colleagues, should they be the ones who have to work hard to fix this?
Unionen was responding to a study by the American Psychological Association that found men "tend to overestimate their intelligence to a much greater extent than women." This apparently leads to what is being dubbed 'mansplaining' in the workplace - where men dumb down their language and explanations to assist their less intelligent female colleagues.
In response to backlash on Unionen's Facebook page, particularly from men, who find the term 'mansplaining' offensive and sexist, a representative responded: "It's naturally unfortunate if some people are offended by our mansplaining hotline. At the same time these are questions that affect many people and that people want to discuss. We can also note that many people are positive about us raising the question of mansplaining."
As a woman, I'm all for support and solidarity - and having experienced sexist behaviour in the workplace, I understand the importance of tackling it. However, my main concern is the need for this hotline in the first place. The idea that women are so lost when talked down to, or dismissed, at work that they need to seek counsel is, well, a bit patronising in itself. But not just that; it's putting the onus on women to resolve this issue.
Why, if women are feeling marginalised at work and mistreated by their male colleagues, should they be the ones who have to work hard to fix this? But also, let's be honest: once a derogatory comment's been thrown out there - making a phone call for advice on a comeback isn't the cleverest way to respond. You need to do it there and then.
And so here are my two solutions for dealing with this issue. Firstly, we need to target the source of the issue (men) rather than the victims (women). Gender assumptions begin at birth, if we fix this - tell girls and boys that they are equal and have the same rights and access to education and careers - perhaps these men wouldn't grow up thinking they are intellectually superior to their female colleagues.
'Mansplaining' is such an irritating term and is offensive to both sexes.
Secondly, if we are going to empower women to stand up to inappropriate comments and behaviour in the workplace, we ought to give them the tools before it happens, not after. Companies taking this issue seriously could provide opt-in empowerment or confidence-boosting workshops, with advice on the difference between acceptable and inappropriate behaviour and strategic ways to deal with it.
Feeling belittled in the workplace can destroy your confidence. We should all be going in to work feeling positive, supported and important. And while this feminist issue may seem trivial compared to others, it takes the smaller issues being fixed before the bigger issues can be targeted. Gender inequality contributes to many of the world's huge injustices - the refugee crisis, domestic violence, rape as a weapon of war. Tackle the general attitude towards women, and then move on to obliterating these heinous crimes.
Lastly, it's time to stop genderising language. 'Mansplaining' is such an irritating term and is offensive to both sexes. It suggests that men are being forced to adopt a different approach when talking to female colleagues, because women are so universally thick. When actually, it is a minority of men engaging in sexist behaviour; deeming it unworthy of its own term. Language like this divides and polarises - exactly the opposite of what is required for a balanced, happy, mutually respectful workforce.
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