Posted by: *carrie* | May 29, 2010

Men at Work

I walked into a conversation at work yesterday between a coworker and customer. The customer was asking some questions about a service he heard we were getting. It so happened that we had just been informed about the services, the timeline for it, and some other general information. The coworker hadn’t been there to get the news yet, so I jumped in. The coworker and myself: female. The customer: male.

I told the customer, yes, we were in fact finally getting the service, and the few details that had been communicated for public consumption. The customer did what happens at least 75% of the time I inform male customers of anything. You know what’s coming. He disagreed and then mansplained to me what was “actually happening”. He knew this because, well just because. I mean, I’m just an employee with the actual information and a woman. Obviously there’s no reason to just take what I said at face value.

To make it worse, he was otherwise a nice guy. He was even jovial while he mansplained.

I’ve worked in various jobs that involve my working with customers regularly for years and years. There are few things more grating than having to deal with this type of sexism.

It’s not like he told a sexist joke, or was blatantly anti-woman. He just had the air of “I know I am right because I am a white male who has been told that his whole life” about him.

There are also the people who ask for assistance doing something, and immediately argue with me when I try to assist them.

There are the overheard conversation between other customers where men are mansplaing or talking down to women. Not in an overtly abusive or rude way. In that annoying way that men do. All of the time.

There are the customers that don’t like dealing with women, and it’s obvious that is their problem, but they haven’t literally said anything to allow you to call them on it.

If you’re wondering if this happens with female customers, the answer is no. In fact, female customers rarely bring up topics outside of what they’re doing. My guess is it’s because they don’t feel the need to show off their knowledge in the same way some male customers do.

I think most of the time these men ask questions simply because they want to hear themselves speak and show off their “knowledge” of said subject.

The awkward part is that, because this is in the workplace and they are customers, there’s not a way to directly address it.

I can’t say, “Look, dude, I know you think that you have the last word on this, but really, I have the press release that came out yesterday with the actual facts and information. It has nothing to do with my lady-ness. It has everything to do with my position of (very limited) power at this job. Also, it is possible for ladies to actually know as much as or even more about something than you.”

I can’t say, “Ok, customer, we’ve been over this, I’ve explained it three ways, it’s obvious you think I’m an idiot because I’m female and you don’t want to deal with me, so GTFO and don’t come back.”

What actually happens is I try to remain polite and smiley and engage the customer. I treat them nicely, even though it’s the last thing I want to do. It’s problematic. It’s happening all of the time, in every service industry job every second of every day. Men like the first customer mansplain themselves away, and instead of a woman being able to call him on it, he get affirmation that he must be right. The man gets validated and continues to be the “expert”. The woman continues to be in a position of having to people-please. I don’t see it happen nearly as often with male coworkers and customers. Sure, some people are just assholes regardless. But if a dude that works with me presents facts, the men almost every time respond by believing him.

If this was an issue between coworkers, I would be comfortable addressing it directly with them. In extreme cases where I might not be, I’d be comfortable dealing with our HR department.

I hate the fact that I’m in a position where I am required to be nice and polite to customers in just about any situations, and therefore go right about reinforcing gender expectations.



  1. I hear you, loud and clear.

    Though I’ve never had to deal directly with customers in a service capacity, the mansplaining shows up in many ways.

    I can’t count the number of social events I’ve skipped for just that reason. I don’t feel I’m making a big deal out of nothing, as so many dates, lovers or friends have tried to tell me. Identity, and identity negation, isn’t nothing.

    It’s getting to the point where I need to lower my expectations about 500 per cent. This means I expect men to interrupt, diminish or discount my opinions, or even my presence, wherever I go and have the temerity to speak and ask questions or present an opinion. I also expect men to take over anything even remotely technical or artistic that I might be doing, and direct me as to how to do it correctly, even when I can handle it fine without the extra “help”. I may or may not comply, depending on the mood and the exigency, but I will sure as hell not be impressed.

    Just in the past two months, I’ve put up with several examples of mansplaining/ mancontrolling. Here is just a small sample:

    1) My dad and fuses. His condo has an old-style fuse box. My dad knows absolutely nothing about anything technical whatsoever, as he’s a retired teacher and specialized in history and language, not science. I explained to him that he couldn’t put a 30-amp fuse in a 15-amp receptor. He didn’t believe me. My cousin, who is a science teacher, repeated the same thing. She’s a woman. He nodded at her, but after she left he still tried to put a 30-amp fuse in a 15-amp receptor. It didn’t fit. Only when the male handyman from the condo came by and told him what to do did my Dad manage to put the right fuse in. Then it worked. Magic! I guess all those explanations just needed a shot of testosterone before they were mysteriously effective. That, or lady amperage is just not as real as the male kind of electricity.

    2) Me on a video camera. I took a video recording workshop with a prosumer digital video camera (the Panasonic DVX). There were four of us in the workshop. I was the only woman there. Sure enough, when it came time to start shooting, even though all of us had been taught exactly the same thing, one of the guys insisted on helping me with the focus when I announced I forgot to change it before saying “frame” (which is the cue for the director to say “action”). I didn’t need his help, I just needed five seconds to focus the lens properly. I got testy and reminded him we all went to the same class. Subsequently, I was branded as agitated and emotional.

    3) I was at a jam put on by a friend. Since I stopped playing guitar, I only do vocals. I waited until there was a break of most participants to grab a mic and try a song. A guy started playing guitar to jam with me. So far, so good… until he decided my own time was off, instead of his, and ordered me several times to start over again, so he could accompany me properly. He didn’t do this to anyone else, at any time, even though he had been playing in the jam all along. I felt irritated and somewhat silenced, and not sure I wanted to go back. I haven’t been since.

  2. I do think that some people go into businesses just because they know they can’t get talked down/back. We all know that employees have to be nice to customers, and I have little doubt people use that to their advantage.

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