Monday, April 27, 2020
Women across the nation are experiencing a unique side effect of coronavirus: their voices being drowned out.
Mita Mallick is the head of diversity and inclusion at Unilever, an international consumer goods company. In a recent interview with the New York Times, she said she was interrupted multiple times at a weekly virtual team meeting.
“I’m interrupted, like, three times and then I try to speak again and then two other people are speaking at the same time interrupting each other,” said Mallick.
Mallick’s title of inclusion doesn’t mean anything if she can’t get a word in—and no, men are not facing similar problems. Studies show that, in meetings, men speak more often and dominate conversation. Their presence is seen as powerful and elite, while women are seen as incompetent.
Mallick’s experience is not unique—so much so that a popular term was coined to describe this phenomenon: mansplaining. “Mansplaining” describes a man oversimplifying common concepts to women in a degrading or condescending tone. Use it in a sentence? Women experience the act of mansplaining six times a week at work.
Women and mansplaining have been together formally since Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay, “Men Who Explain Things,” when she coined the term (after a man tried to explain her own book to her)—but men’s condescending behavior towards women, specifically to feel more dominant in social settings, has been around for decades.
Most recently, there was the slightest ounce of hope that the digital, remote workplace—forced by COVID-19 pandemic—would make the problem of mansplaining a little bit better. Perhaps the act of everyone behind a camera with buttons to push “mute” and “unmute” would civilize meetings and provide equal speaking time for all.
News flash: It didn’t.
Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University professor of linguistics and the author of eight books on women and men in the workplace, knew that Zoom conferencing and other forms of remote working wouldn’t change the problem and probably make mansplaining and male conversation domination worse.
In person, “women often feel that they don’t want to take up more space than necessary so they’ll often be more succinct,” said Tannen.
Online platforms allow men to mansplain, interrupt and dominate meetings more—and now more than ever before, women can’t get a word in.
While being succinct automatically makes our time on video shorter, men often take women’s ideas and run with it. It’s an ownership problem too.
In her research, Tannen found that many of the inequities in meetings can be boiled down to gender differences in conversation styles and conventions. That includes speaking time, the length of pauses between speakers, the frequency of questions and the amount of overlapping talk. More often than not, men and women differ on almost every one of those aspects, Tannen said, which leads to clashes and misunderstandings.
Men don’t just talk more—they talk louder. Not surprisingly, men who speak more and louder tend to be seen with more power and as such in dominant positions. Experts believe they enjoy the opportunity to explain things to women because they perceive it makes them seem smarter and in authority.
“Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn,” according to Tannen, “and they are more likely than men to believe that if they do so, they won’t be liked.”