More Elucidation of Mansplanation

My previous post on the term “mansplaining” was turning into a zombie thread, so I had to drive a stake through its heart. But there’s more that needs to be said on the topic, and today it comes in the form of this study covered by Scientific American. (HT: Justin Wolfers, via Michelle Goldberg on Twitter. The original article is also available online, but requires free registration.)

Researchers trained four actors, two male and two female, to give the same short physics lecture to 126 undergraduate students, who were then polled for their opinions on the actors’ grasp of the material and ability to relate to the audience. Students of each gender thought the actors of the same gender were more relatable, but male students preferred male lecturers by a much greater margin than female students preferred female lecturers. What’s more, the male actors got higher ratings of competence from all the students, even though they were giving the exact same talk as the female actors. Again, this effect was more marked among male students than female students.

Similar to the studies which find that identical resumes get a higher response rate when they have stereotypically “white” names as opposed to stereotypically “black” names, this story shows that prejudice still exerts a subtle drag on our opinions – even among people who most likely neither think of themselves as sexist nor had any conscious intent to be sexist. In this case, the prejudice is that men are “naturally” more knowledgeable or better at science, which causes people to unconsciously favor lecturers who conform to that stereotype over those who go against the grain.

This is one more piece of evidence confirming what social scientists have long known: As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as ideal engines of pure rationality, the ugly truth is that unconscious biases – even ones we don’t consciously agree with – can have measurable influences on our behavior. This is just the implicit association effect that was the subject of one of the first posts I ever wrote on Daylight Atheism, and here we see one way it plays out in the real world. On any one occasion, the effects of prejudice are small; but over the course of a person’s career they can have a cumulative effect, contributing to a greater likelihood that male scientists will be favored for promotion, grants, tenure, and all other kinds of recognition and prestige.

Most importantly, this is why the word “mansplaining” exists: it was invented specifically to call out the behavior that both arises from and contributes to this kind of prejudice. Exactly as I wrote so long ago, you can’t correct for a bias you’re not aware of, and the first step in becoming aware of something is to have a name for it. Prejudices like this can’t help but have an effect on the way people, including women but especially men, act towards each other. And when men unconsciously act on the assumption that their membership in the male gender makes them naturally smarter, more knowledgeable, or more rational than women, they can and should be called out on it – they should be made aware of what they’re doing. Granted, this causes a temporary sting to the ego (which some uninformed people equate with genuine prejudice), but in the long run, it’s a necessary step in the journey of moral enlightenment. Don’t like being called a mansplainer? Then treat women as intellectual equals and stop mansplaining!

Now, let the comment thread brawl begin. I eagerly await the creative explanations of how these results can be explained by something other than sexism. (My money is on, “By pure chance, the two male actors selected for this study were actually better actors than the two female actors and therefore were rightly judged to be more competent.”)

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.