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Despite my expertise and reputation in my job, I fall victim to the lumbering hands of mansplaining. Enough has been enough for years, but what now?
If Australia granted a national award to the recipient of peak mansplaining, I’d be a prime candidate for this dubious prize.
Nearly every time I publish a big journalistic investigation, men I’ve never met before contact me to tell me how to do my job better (which is interesting because none of them are journalistic giants like Bob Woodward – who I have met and would happily take advice from – they are just ordinary blokes).
The latest example happened this weekend just gone. I published a major piece about men taking steroids and muscle dysmorphia.
I’d been working on it for weeks. As usual, I did piles of fact checking, read widely on the topic, interviewed an expert and spent a huge amount of time making sure the personal stories of my case studies were compassionately and accurately told. Meanwhile, a young, white male PhD candidate from the UK with an interest in this area contacted me on Twitter to express “concern” about my reporting. I was sensationalist, he tweeted at me, before proceeding to tell me how to do my job better. He mentioned my large audience (jealousy?) and retweeted another old white bloke describing me as “a scourge.”
Young white academic then tried to relay his expertise and some quite useful ideas on the subject at hand (steroids, not mansplaining), but after being professionally insulted you’ll be shocked to learn that I’d stopped listening. When I wrote to young white man’s university professor about this, he viewed the Twitter insults of his charge as “academic freedom”. In his follow-up emails, the professor treated me to unprecedented condescension.
Just to clear this up early, I’m not a hack or a cadet reporter. I’m a multi-award winning social justice journalist. These are skills I’ve developed over nearly two decades. My work is complex, painstaking and slow.
Like any expert in their field, my job involves intensive processes that readers – thankfully – have no notion about. For example, I might spend hours going back and forward with media lawyers trying to work out how we can tell a powerful and important story that’s in the public interest without being sued.
Or, as with my latest Fairfax investigation on workplace bullying, I’ll spend a whole day just trying to correctly pin down the source of one statistic that has been misattributed by everyone from the ABC to the Federal Government.
These instructional approaches are not an invitation to have respectful dialogue; they are an attempt to put me back in my box. Men explaining things to me has nothing to do with what I’m writing about. It’s the fact I’m writing at all. I’m taking up space and having a public voice.
Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned bullying investigation spawned a fresh batch of electronic missives about how I can do my job better. (Yes, it’s getting boring, isn’t it?)
Despite the fact that men make up the overwhelming majority of voices in the media, my male correspondents seemed especially angry the featured case studies were all women. Despite the fact Daily Life, where the investigation was published, is a women’s platform. Despite the fact the two men who came forward as potential case studies self-excluded because they were not willing to be identified.
None of these solid, professional reasons were adequate. I’m a woman, therefore I need to pipe down and listen to how I can perform better.
By now, accusations of being a “man hater” – yet another mechanism to used dismiss relevant commentary from women – will be inevitable. But in reality, I’m far from it. Firstly, I’m married to a lovely bloke. Secondly, I have written compassionately about plenty of male issues, including about male domestic violence victims and young men dying by suicide and mothers who abuse their sons.
And as anyone who has been interviewed by me will tell you, I’m the first person who wants to discuss and engage with new ideas about the topics I’m covering. But that’s not what this is. This is about power.
Put another way, these instructional approaches by men are not an invitation to have respectful dialogue; they are an attempt to put me back in my box.
Over time I’ve come to understand that men explaining things to me has nothing to do with what I’m writing about. It’s the fact I’m writing at all. I’m taking up space and having a public voice.
Female writers in my network nod wearily when I relate these experiences to them.
Indigenous writer Nayuka Gorrie notes: “Every single signal white men are sent is that they are entitled to this behaviour.”
She also points to the innate sexism and flawed logic in mansplaining: “If a woman can exist, despite her expertise, I, despite my lack of expertise, must also be qualified to say something too.”
To cheer me up, comedian and writer Catherine Deveny sends me a funny graphic she has on hand to send to mansplainers, which states in lurid ’80s-style font: “Thanks so much random man. Your opinion is noted.”
Also on The Big Smoke
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Associate Professor Dr Michael Flood, based at the Queensland University of Technology, is a well-known feminist. After making a good-natured joke about the paradox of explaining mansplaining to me, he goes on to say my experience is common.
“We are taught to take up space, to feel entitled, to feel knowledgeable, and as part of that, to be suspicious or cynical about women’s claims to space and knowledge. It’s a reflection of broader gender relations in which men’s voices and men’s knowledge are given priority, given primacy, and women’s voices and expertise are marginalised or trivialised,” Dr Flood says.
He says that society’s lack of trust in women’s voices can have serious ripple affects: “In fact, we know that there’s a widespread community willingness to believe that women make up accusations of rape and domestic violence.”
It makes me incredibly uncomfortable to point this out, but almost without fail the strangers mansplaining to me are white men. Is this purely a coincidence?
According to Dr Flood, probably not: “Mansplaining is about power and entitlement, it’s probably less likely to be practiced by men who have other social positions, such as ethnic minority men or gay men or trans men or indigenous men. That means that they’re on the other side of those patterns of power.
“Gender isn’t the only story here. Gender intersects with other forms of social difference and social inequality and that shapes whose voices get heard and who is spoken to in patronising ways and who isn’t,” he says.
My status as frequent mansplaining recipient hasn’t gone unnoticed by the outside world. A few months ago a package unexpectedly arrived in the post from my friend, Nicola. In it was a book titled Men Explain Things To Me by the brilliant US writer, Rebecca Solnit.
The essay after which the book takes its name was first published in 2008 and has reached cult status. It deftly describes how men silence the voices of women. Much like Dr Flood, Ms Solnit argues this has dangerous consequences and leads to society ignoring issues like rape, femicide, domestic violence and harassment.
So in case you’re tempted to dismiss mansplaining as a first world problem, ask yourself this:
What does it really mean for society if half the population can’t be heard?