By Francesca Regalado
Every upperclassman has sat through that awkward moment when a classmate interrupts the lecture to deliver a tangential spiel, often condescendingly and on the assumption that they know more about it than anyone else.
It happened in one of my classes: a student very, very briefly mentioned a recent controversy while answering a question posed by our professor about government transparency, when another student – without raising his hand nor being called on – challenged the first one on whether he thought the controversy would actually change anything.
The room was instantly tense – everyone felt embarrassed that someone had momentarily hijacked the professor’s lecture.
It’s called mansplaining, a social phenomenon so increasingly discussed nowadays that Merriam-Webster included it in their “Word We’re Watching” series.
In my three years at Seton Hall, I have only ever witnessed male classmates hijack a class, so I wanted to see if anyone else shared my opinion. I surveyed six ladies and six men at the School of Diplomacy, including an alumna and an alumnus, both recent graduates. In addition, I interviewed two Diplomacy professors, one male and one female.
Of the 12 students surveyed, only two had not heard of mansplaining before, and eight agreed that men are more likely than women to dominate class discussion. Most of the women surveyed, including the two professors I interviewed, shared this sentiment: “I’m so glad someone is finally addressing this issue.”
“This is a common internal discussion amongst women,” one female respondent wrote. “I wonder how we get men to understand our perspectives.”
Asked if he had seen mansplaining in his classes, the male professor said he did not know, but admitted that “if it has happened and I didn’t notice it,” he is probably just not as attuned to it as women are.
The six male students, however, offered mix reviews. One admitted that before the survey, he had not given the issue much thought; another admitted to being “a frequent culprit of ‘mansplaining;’” and yet another wrote: “Please stop framing this in terms of gender and sex. If a guy is ‘mansplaining’ then he is just being rude and disruptive.”
Of course, interrupting others in general is poor classroom etiquette, but I have a theory that mansplaining also subtly reflects how society behaves toward women in general. A few respondents seemed to agree.
“Boys are encouraged from a young age to be strong and dominant,” one wrote. Another added that women are “expected to be considerate of others in a way that men are not.”
Believe it or not, the same double standard is imposed on faculty members. More so than their male colleagues, “we are expected to be more accommodating and sympathetic,” said the female professor. Otherwise, it reflects poorly on their course evaluations.
Both professors, whom I interviewed separately, mentioned research showing that student evaluations for female professors are lower on average than those of their male counterparts, even in blind web courses.
Are students more likely to interrupt or debate with a female professor? From my experience, yes – the horror story above happened in a female professor’s class. It is difficult to imagine anyone behaving as crudely toward male professors.
Moreover, mansplaining is not confined to classrooms – both professors have witnessed mansplaining in professional settings as well. The male professor was observing a discussion at the United Nations on the role of women when a male colleague corrected a female panelist as she spoke about her experience with the U.N. Women initiative.
If that doesn’t make you cringe, the female professor said that while she was presenting a paper, a male economist in the audience corrected her about a country she had researched. She doubled down on her statement, and when it became obvious that the male economist was going to continue his rebuttal, the moderator, also a man, had to come to her rescue by repeating her statement.
Guys, this is not to discourage you from participating in class. Especially in our field of international relations, respectful, fact-based debate is healthy, and we should practice during class as much as we can.
“One thing I call out at the beginning of the semester is that I want everyone to participate, and I want everyone to think about how they want their comments to be treated,” the female professor said.
“Contribute in a way that helps other people contribute, not hinders them,” the male professor said.
The recurring complaint from the men surveyed is that they tend to recuse themselves from class discussions on gender, feminism, and rape. They feel that their opinion on those subjects would be dismissed because they would not be as knowledgeable as their female peers.
Here’s a tip: If you don’t know, learn. In fact, if more young men took it upon themselves to be educated on gender issues in order to contribute to class discussions, maybe fewer women would be shaking their heads that it is 2016 and age-old peeves like mansplaining are still a thing.