Mansplaining in the workplace

Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 12:30

Peter Tai Christensen, Union representative, explains how the Swedish mansplaining hotline caused a domestic stir and went on to take the international media by storm.

For a week in November last year, Sweden’s largest trade union, Unionen, turned the world’s attention to the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’. As a trade union, Unionen can never accept sex discrimination. Therefore we chose to open a ‘mansplaining hotline’ to raise awareness about the master suppression techniques that women may face when they pursue and demand full and effective participation, as well as equal opportunities, in working life.

According to the Swedish Discrimination Act, everyone is entitled to equal rights and opportunities regardless of their gender. However, against the backdrop of history it is not difficult to understand why old and outdated gender roles still cause problems today.

Women's right to do professional work and be traders has not always been a matter of fact. In 1846 only widowed, divorced or unmarried women were legally entitled to work in manual trades and some commerce. It was not until 1925 that women, with some exceptions, were given the same right as men to become civil servants.

Only a few years earlier, in 1921, women gained suffrage and became eligible for election to parliament. Yet it wasn’t until 1947 that the first woman entered Swedish government. Right up to 1989 there were certain occupations that were not available to women, and to this day no woman has yet been prime minister of Sweden.

The notion that women and men are essentially different creatures with different abilities, aptitudes and social functions has historically permeated our society. The notions of femininity and masculinity formed by an ancient institutionalised subordination of women unfortunately still exist to some extent.

We only need to look at the lack of gender parity in higher education and the labour market to realise that gender stereotypes still contribute to gender inequality in society as of 2017.

The traditional gender roles are, however, changing. Although tough challenges lie ahead of us before gender equality is achieved, it is obvious that many male privileges that were previously taken for granted are being questioned and successively disappearing.

We all react differently to changes in society. Some of us develop and integrate while others consciously or unconsciously exert resistance. Mansplaining can be interpreted as a reaction to the fact that traditional gender roles are being renegotiated.

Mansplaining involves maneuvers and master suppression techniques intended to put women ‘in their place’ and thereby consolidate or restore male supremacy, and the privileges that follow in its wake.

Whether mansplaining is intentional, a form of misguided kindness or purely routine behaviour, the problem is that women are basically assumed to be less knowledgeable, competent, important or worthy. And enough women are subjected to it by enough men for it to be a problem that needs to be addressed, discussed and resolved.

Harassment, including mansplaining and master suppression techniques, has no place in the working life that Unionen aims to achieve. Therefore, we need to make this type of behaviour visible. We need to talk about it, speak up and demand that men who engage in mansplaining change their behaviour.

Harassment seriously harms the victim's job satisfaction, as well as the overall work environment and ultimately even the company's productivity and profitability. Individuals, companies and the society have everything to gain from actively and systematically preventing and addressing harassment.

An important part of all change is not simply to start doing new things, but also to stop doing things that have been done in the past. Let us all agree that mansplaining is one of the things that we, by joining forces, are going to leave behind us for good. Peter Tai Christensen