plumage talkingI want to understand – and get your thoughts on – a pattern of behavior I find frustrating. I avoid stereotyping like I avoid measles or strep. So I’m not suggesting most men do this or that women don’t. I either observe it more often in men, or feel more frustrated when it happens in an exchange with a man. I do think it is a behavior that shows up on the masculine end of the masculine-feminine continuum. (The term “masculine” refers to ways of thinking and acting that more men than women are likely to demonstrate.)

This frustrating behavior is for someone to talk as if he or she knows something – and not listen to what someone else does know. It is for someone to dominate a conversation rather than having a dialogue.

Let me describe this behavior as I have experienced it from time to time with a man. I ask a question. He talks. I pick up on something he mentions and ask another question about that. He talks. After another question or two from me, he mentions something that relates to my own experience. Seeing an entry point that can make this into a dialogue, I interject a few words about my experience. He does not pick up on this. He does not ask me a question. He talks. At the end, I know quite a bit about him and what he thinks; he knows almost nothing about me. The experience is neither satisfying nor validating.

I am not alone in having this experience. In a recent blog, I referred to Dr. Arin Reeve’s study titled, “Mansplaining, Manterrupting & Bropropriating: Gender Bias and the Pervasive Interruption of Women.” The title says it all. Reeves defines “mansplaining” as a man interrupting a woman to explain to her something that she actually knows more about than he does.”  

I just read an essay by Rebecca Solnit called “Men Explaining Things to Me.” Solnit tells about meeting a man who held forth – at length – on the topic on which she had recently published a respected book. He talked on and on, never pausing to hear the fact that she was the expert on the topic – actually the author of the book he was praising. She notes that, “Mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the [male] gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.”

Why does this happen? It could be arrogance. Or it could be insecurity masked by an over-confident style. It could be the guy (or gal) just wasn’t raised right. But, absent any of these explanations, “mansplaining” arises out of the masculine ways of being in the world.

In my book and workshops, I point out that the masculine way of seeing the world is as a hierarchy in which status matters a lot. As a result, the masculine style of speech is declarative and confident. The typical man often sounds like he knows what he is talking about – even when he doesn’t. (The typical woman, on the other hand, may downplay her expertise and express her ideas less declaratively.) When the prototypical man hears about a problem, he often assumes he is supposed to fix it; the woman may just want to talk about the problem – to vent, get input or just share.

My dear friend Michael offers another explanation. He notes that, in much of the animal kingdom, exemplified by the peacock and the ruby throated hummingbird, the male can attract and impress a female with bright plumage. In the human species, men have no such tools. In fact, women have reversed things and use adornments (lipstick, jewelry and bright clothing) to attract men. The poor human male is left to find other ways to attract and impress a woman. One of those ways is holding forth, dominating conversations and displaying his knowledge.

Frankly, I’d prefer male plumage over “mansplaining” and one-way “conversations.”

So how do you ‘splain “mansplaining”?

50's images of womenI’m on a mission to help organizations achieve gender diversity in leadership. Having more women (along with men) at the top is good for bottom-line results. I am out to expose and eradicate anything that gets in the way of women being able to reach their potential. One category of such things is unconscious mind-sets. Mind-sets are ways we think that arise from our early-life experiences and our culture. They can seep in surreptitiously and remain unconscious.

When you look at this ad (one of many), is it any wonder there are unconscious mindsets that hold women back? These ads were common back when I was a start-up. Back when my parents were grownups. This is how my dad thought! He didn’t see anything wrong with it. And he didn’t think about how this would impact his daughters and future generations. It was just in the air we breathed. I breathed it, too.

I was not consciously aware of the fact my father discounted the value of women until I was in my early 20’s. I was in law school and married to my first husband, then a young attorney. At the dinner table, I heard my father say to my spouse, “Caroline can’t be as good an attorney as you are.” I was dumb-founded. I asked him to repeat himself. He did. I asked him, “If mother had gone to medical school, do you think she could have been as good a doctor as you?” “No,” he replied. OMG, here out in the open was the mind-set that influenced the air in which I had been raised!

By the way, I set out to prove my father wrong. I became a very successful attorney and executive (to be honest, outshining my then-spouse). And now I am committed to helping create a world that honors and values men and women equally. When I get frustrated about obstacles facing women, I remember what my father said. I remember what was in the air just a few decades ago. I understand rather than judge the mind-sets that underlie “mansplaining,” the “double bind,” gendered definitions of leadership, women getting “talked over” in meetings, and women having to earn credibility that is more automatically granted men.

I may not judge these mindsets. But I sure am out to prove them wrong!

In what ways do mind-sets from the 1950’s still influence the experience of women?

knife in backIt’s 2015. Yet women still represent only a small percentage of senior management in U.S. business. What an opportunity! Diversity, including gender diversity, has resoundingly been linked with better financial results. So having more women in senior management should be a key goal of business leaders.

What is standing in the way of reaching that goal? Women’s can’t get off the hook. We have to ask what women are and are not doing. I’m not talking about how women individually behave – the focus of Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. (Yes, it will probably help if women do more speaking up, asking for what they want, tooting their own horns and increasing their tolerance for risk.) I’m talking about how women treat and support each other.

In my workshops, I have been asked, “Why are women not more supportive of other women?” Or I’m told about a woman who undermined another woman or about a bad woman boss. And I hear stories of women who made it to the top and then “pulled up the ladder.” Among the worst phrases I hear are “cattiness,” “back-biting,” and sabotage.”

How true are the negative things? The phenomenon of women not supporting (or sabotaging) other women is clearly overblown. Minorities often get “painted with the same brush,” the bad acts of one member of the group being attributed to the entire group. If someone has had a bad male boss, he or she would never say, “Men are bad bosses.” But we observe a woman undermining another woman and conclude that “women do that.” Also, because there are few women at the upper levels of business, there is inordinate attention given to their behavior.

The negative is overblown, but there is room for improvement. Women are less likely than men to want a woman boss. Women bullies are reported to bully other women 70-80% of the time. One research study suggests that, with very few women at the executive level, they are compared to one another, creating competition. Women in leadership may want to avoid being seen as favoring women — and so overcompensate.

If we want improvement (more women supporting other women or supporting them more), it is helpful to understand the unconscious mind-sets (ways of thinking) that underlie negative behaviors. Here are three:

  •  Women are wired for close friendship in which two people are equals and share intimate secrets. Businesses tend to be hierarchical, and workplace relationships are what Pat Heim calls “friendly.” Managers demonstrate “executive distance” with subordinates. This kind of relationship between a “lower level” and “higher level” woman can disappoint (perhaps unconscious) expectations for close relationships. A woman may feel rejected by the more senior woman, take it personally and dislike the senior woman.


  •  Women absorb the same unconscious mind-sets from our culture that men do. Leadership has historically been defined in terms of masculine attributes (e.g., confidence and assertiveness), not feminine traits (e.g., collaboration and nurturing). Extremely feminine women are called unflattering terms like “bimbo”; business women don’t want to be identified with these stereotypes. They may disassociate from all that is feminine, becoming “honorary men” or “Queen Bees” — happy to be the only woman at the top.

Women may not like women who make it to the top. While success and likeability are positively correlated for        men, they are negatively correlated for women. Women, like men, trap women in the double bind — not seeing women who exhibit feminine styles as leaders, and calling women who operate in masculine styles a word starting with “B.”


  • Given the number of women in the upper ranks of business, it is natural to think of women getting a leadership spot as a zero sum game; if another woman gets a spot, that’s one less spot for me! A recent study showed the existence of “implicit quotas”; having one woman in a senior position makes it less, not more, likely there will be a second woman promoted! That makes it hard to celebrate the promotion of a woman and see it as a gain for women generally!

Do women sabotage or support other women at work? Yes! Awareness of the mind-sets that underlie the negative behaviors can enable us to change them. We can catch ourselves and change our thinking. Women can contribute to having more women reach the top. That’s good for women and good for the bottom line!

What is your experience working or leading other women?


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