Wright Foundation | December 27, 2017

Sick of “Mansplaining?” How Gender Roles Influence Communication

When it comes to topics of discussion, how many of us create a divide (conscious or unconscious) between “men’s topics” and “women’s topics?”

Sick of Mansplaining? How Gender Roles Influence Communication - couples can learn to communicate better through the influence of their gender roles

Maybe you think of men’s topics as politics, current events, science fiction, sports, and the outdoors. Perhaps when you think of women’s topics you think of motherhood, housekeeping, cooking, decorating, or fashion.

The lines are becoming increasingly blurred as we forgo traditional “gender roles” and embrace the realization men can be caring nurturers and women can be empowered leaders…but there’s still a long way to go.

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about the topic of “mansplaining.” This is where men barge into a conversation with a woman and condescendingly explain to her what it really means. I’ll bet simply reading about this makes some women’s blood boil (and probably makes a few men wonder if they’re guilty).

And rightfully so! It’s frustrating to be talked down to. Over a hundred years past women’s lib and we’re still facing inequality and assumptions about the opposite gender.

Now, of course, gender assumptions are a two-way street. How many women have said, “Oh, it’s like a man not ask directions,” or, “typical guy, thinking he can plow his way through a conversation.”

If we really want to balance the scales and celebrate the strengths of both genders, we need to even out the conversation and let go of our assumptions about the opposite sex.

Men Are From Mars?

Now, I’m the first to admit, in my relationships I can often be more dominate. My personality falls heavily into the area of regulator—I like to be in charge. Judith’s falls into the area of energizer—where she tends to be the cheerleader of the group. On the CARE spectrum, men are often on the analyzer/regulator side and women are often cooperators or energizers. (Read more about the CARE profile here.)

But it’s certainly not a hard and fast rule. I’ve known many women who were analyzers and regulators and many men who were cooperators and energizers. Our personalities have much to do with our nature and early nurture than our gender. In fact, many of our traits were set long before adulthood.

We may think of emotions and nurturing as more feminine traits, but as any successful CEO (male or female) will tell you, embracing and nurturing vision and displaying high emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a vital component of success. Men and women alike can’t afford to skimp on certain qualities or ignore them because they’re not believed to fit in their traditional gender role.

Take motherhood as another example. There are many myths about motherhood, such as: every woman should be a mother to be fulfilled, every mother loves being a mother, or a mother instantly feels a bond with her newborn infant. Not only are these ideas false, but they set unrealistic expectations for women (and men). A new mother may feel isolated and alone, as though she’s the only woman who’s ever experienced challenges in motherhood due to these false expectations. She may worry it’s selfish to focus on her own purpose and fulfillment outside of the role of motherhood. (It’s NOT!)

Ever heard “boys don’t cry?” And how many of us believe it? How many guys were raised to believe emotions were for the weak. It wasn’t okay to feel or express your emotions. Bottle up your feelings and hide them inside?

This is incredibly damaging for anyone. There are no such thing as bad emotions—every feeling from joy, hurt, anger, sadness and fear is healthy. Our emotions are there to be expressed!  It’s okay to feel pain and use it as a gift. If we deny our pain and hide it, we’re denying our gift to the world.

In fact, when we don’t express our emotions, they can cause us to become ill. They can cause our blood pressure to rise. We may find we’re tired, we’re drained. We may also look around us and realize those around us are drained as well.

In an iron battleship, there is always an electrical current running through the ship. Like, anxiety, anger and fear, if left, this current would eat through and corrode the center of the ship. Zinc plates called sacrificial anodes are used to absorb the electrical current around it and prevent corrosion.

I see this often in women who work for bosses who are poor at properly expressing their emotions. Women become the sacrificial zinc anodes of the office. It’s usually the HR department or admin who ends up absorbing and diffusing for their boss, so they don’t corrode the morale of the office.

Emotions are healthy! Emotions are a divine gift for women AND men!

Letting Go of our Beliefs About the Opposite Sex

So, what can we do to overcome these limiting and damaging preconceived notions about the opposite sex?

Well, first we need to explore the truths about our own beliefs about men and women. Whether you’re a woman or a man, you’ve created and built up beliefs about both genders. These are based largely upon your experiences with your parents and other adults of either gender during your childhood.

Perhaps your mother relied on you for her emotional support and consequently you feel overwhelmed when other women express their emotions, or conversely, you’ve embraced the role of rescuer and look for opportunities to save those around you, even at your own emotional expense.

Perhaps your father was emotionally distant and mysterious, so you’ve viewed men as a quiet and enigmatic. As a man, perhaps you feel you don’t measure up, or aren’t sure how to measure up to the idea of how a man should be. As a woman, maybe you seek out men who are emotionally estranged and unknowable, accepting distance as a norm. Maybe you work hard to please men because you’re still seeking the approval of your father.

These ideas are heavy concepts to tackle, but they’re key areas for us to explore in our personal growth work. Day in and day out we’re surrounded by and interacting with people from both genders.

When we allow ourselves to let go of our beliefs about the sexes, we open ourselves up to a greater understanding of each individual.

See others for the truth of who they are and allow yourself to explore and embrace your own expressions and truth, not simply limited to the gender roles you believe you’re assigned. If you’re a man, embrace your nurturing and emotional side. Let go of the idea that weakness exists in emotions. Stop “mansplaining” and fighting to prove yourself in conversation. Learn to listen.

For women, embrace your strength and allow yourself to view your emotions as powerful tools rather than weaknesses to overcome. If you’ve ever worried you’re too sensitive, realize there is strength in sensitivity. Embrace your emotional intelligence and use it to strengthen your leadership and resolve.

Men and women greatly benefit from overcoming limiting beliefs we may hold about each other and ourselves. Explore where your ideas of what’s okay for men or women come from. What do you believe men “should” be like? What do you believe women “should” be like? Why?

As we explore and expand our beliefs, we’re able to better connect with each other on a human level rather than operating under a gender-specific notion. Embrace your strengths as men and women, but don’t let your gender limit you.

For more on exploring masculine and feminine roles and strengths, join us for a Men’s Leadership or Women’s Essential Experience Weekend Retreat. Visit us at the Wright Foundation to learn more.

About the Author

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.