Let Women Speak First: Mansplaining in Small Business
In September, I made a call on Townsquared: me and my colleague Melissa had been “scheming” about a way to support women business owners in Seattle and we wanted input from our members.
We had a hunch that there was an eagerness in our community to shine some light on the unique challenges that female entrepreneurs face.
Members of all genders responded to our efforts to organize around the experience of operating a business as a woman. Many male-identifying members jumped at the opportunity to support this initiative. They expressed both their admiration for their female colleagues and a desire to contribute to the continued success of the women-owned small businesses in their community.
Mansplaining in small business
We did not expect that the strongest opinions would come in the form of “mansplainers,” men unaffected by the challenges we wanted to address but still believing themselves to be in a position to address them.
I responded to a written inquiry from a man who challenged the need for a space that centered women, arguing that by excluding men, participants were missing a crucial opportunity to learn how to build confidence by engaging with their male colleagues. His language suggested that creating a space for women to support other women requires the direction of a man.
The term “mansplaining” is defined as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman,” according to Lily Rotham of The Atlantic.
Mansplaining is a portmanteau, a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two other words. In this case, when the words “man” and “explaining” are combined, we get mansplaining. The word is a relatively recent term for a phenomenon that has been happening for a long time.
A report called, “21st Century Barriers to Women’s Entrepreneurship,” from the Majority Report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship showed that during their first year in business, women entrepreneurs receive approximately 80 percent less capital and receive only 5 percent of equity capital annually compared to male-owned businesses. Elements of the report are encouraging, like the growth of women-owned business over the past 15 years (it’s greater than all but the largest, publicly-traded firms, measured by number of businesses, employment and revenues).
We imagine a world where women have the same access to capital, the same shot at government procurement and the same potential as their male peers to grow beyond $500,000 in revenue. That world is not here yet.
Organizing a space for women to speak
Melissa and I put our best brains together to figure out a way to amplify the voices of our colleagues. We wanted to do something to acknowledge that women have historically been left out of conversations about business, especially in the realm of ownership. We hoped that our outreach could act as a small step in mitigating the disparity that we know to be true.
We know the disparity because we’ve witnessed it. More importantly, on occasion we’ve experienced it ourselves.
This man wanted to explain to me what I should be doing, as a woman, to support other women.
The writer Rebecca Solnit is often credited with coining the term mansplaining, and introducing its usage to an audience eager to understand their own individual experiences as more than isolated incidents.
The experience of having been “mansplained to” is indicative of a larger cultural trend about the way we relate to women in all areas of life, including in the workplace.
Solnit says that the phenomenon of mansplaining arises as a result of overconfidence and cluelessness. The kind of confidence that compels a man to explain to a group of women what it’s like to be a woman business owner.
While the term is clever and many will get a laugh out of the obvious irony of situations where they’ve either experienced or witnessed mansplaining, the prevalence of mansplaining in small business is made possible by the number of situations where a woman is presumed to be ignorant and unqualified by a man.
More importantly, her presumed ignorance and lack of qualifications forces her to become the listener in a situation, even when she might be the expert in the room.
Mansplaining is just another way to silence women
Mansplaining in small business is just one more way that women are silenced. On her website, Sheryl Sandberg encourages communities to talk openly about the challenges women face in business leadership.
We wanted to give women business owners an opportunity to talk about themselves: their storefronts and products, their business goals, and their dreams. We wanted to provide them with a space where they could speak candidly about the challenges of operating a small business.
In spaces where men are included, women are more likely to be silent. Women do not need more opportunities where they are asked to speak up in the presence of men, like this mansplainer suggested. We get this practice every day.
In her book, Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit says, “Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
One of my friends told me that he doesn’t feel like many of the stereotypes about male behavior apply to him. He was curious how he could discern if his interactions with women were skewed by sexist assumptions or expectations.
My response was, “Have you asked them?” Ask women questions. Listen to women’s answers. When you ask someone a question, you are expressing a belief that that person knows something that you don’t know, and that you trust their authority on the subject.
It would have been different if the previous gentleman had written to me and asked, “Would it be helpful for me to be in the room, so that women attending the gathering have an opportunity to practice speaking up in the presence of a man?”
I still would have said no, but I would have been in a position where my judgement about the situation was considered the authority.
In an effort to create a space where the experiences of women business owners are claimed by and for women, Melissa and I created a group called Townsquared Women Business Owners. All business owners in the Seattle and King County’s Eastside who identify as women are encouraged to join this group and be part of the conversation.