Explain Yourself — Women in Tech
It’s been noted many times before that women have a habit of overexplaining themselves in the workplace, which undermines their message and credibility, in turn making it more difficult for us to get what we want; be it more resources, a raise, promotion, whatever. There are many reasons given as to why women are prone to doing this, largely rooted in confidence and how we think others perceive us.
But I think there’s more to it — an overlooked aspect of the scenarios in which women overexplain. Male colleagues and managers ask questions of female engineers that they do not ask of other men, and with a greater frequency, and it’s likely that women have internalised this. The overexplaining behaviour is pre-emptive of what we have experienced in the past; if we know an interrogation’s coming, we might as well get it over with.
- Why are you doing that?
- Why can’t you do that?
- Who told you to do that?
- Who is this for?
- Why are you doing it like that?
- Why are you making a note of that?
- Why are you here?
- Who are you?
Like mansplaining, this behaviour is a consequence of workplaces that have been dominated by men with little input from women. In male-dominated workplaces, grandstanding is a means of demonstrating knowledge & competence; if a colleague isn’t vocal about their wisdom and achievements, it’s a cause for suspicion. It implies they aren’t actually competent or qualified to be there.
Women don’t tend to brag about their accomplishments and worldliness, and it leads men to just assume we don’t know anything. Because we’re not overtly showing that we are capable and qualified, they assume we’re not. The questioning may begin with little tests — to confirm whether you know your stuff. One time on site, an electrician (!) asked me the difference between an RCD and an RCBO, as if he didn’t know that.
Many men that work in places with a skewed gender ratio are unable to see women occupying the kinds of roles they do — believing a woman’s place is anywhere but there. And so they assert their dominance and make women feel small by hounding them with questions, looking for reasons they’re not good enough.
When we ask questions, it’s different. We are then asked why we need to know what we’ve asked for, or just told outright that we don’t. So we give more and more reasons to back our query up — even if it’s just simple project info that allows us to perform our role — they don’t trust us with even the most basic of requests.
Not only is it a barrier to accessing tools and information, it’s a barrier to progression. This gatekeeping denies us access to higher, decision-making roles. Male engineers tend to see these managerial roles as being male-coded (and so do women!), and so they retain that territory only for men, those who they’re sure are competent. Men are assumed capable if they pass the interview stage, but women need to prove over and over again that they deserve to be there.
After having to deal with this constant monitoring and uneven demands for accountability for months and years, we recognise the cues that lead to a meticulous unpicking of everything we’ve created. We try to ward off any doubts over our abilities by giving as much information as possible.
The problem is that what we say is interpreted as vague waffle, not the valuable insight we thought we were projecting. When we overexplain it’s judged differently, but it’s also coming from a different place. While men talk about their knowledge and achievements as a confirmation of their power and status, women talk about themselves to try to demonstrate worth to an audience that inherently doubts them.
Women working in male-dominated fields are often misunderstood, underestimated and pigeonholed, so they want to get in there first and remove ambiguity over their abilities. The problem is that by trying to add clarity they actually make themselves look confused and less credible. Women don’t start off like this — it is a learned behaviour, a self-defence mechanism.
While in education, we were encouraged to succeed and we were praised for our abilities and hard work. Now things are different; we can’t do anything right, and we don’t really know why. Excessive and patronising questioning is an extra layer of bullshit that female engineers face, which slows everything down: the overall project, the team, and women’s career progress. Additionally, the extra “supervision” a woman receives signals to others that she’s not worthy of respect, opportunities or advancement.
What can we do about it?
I know that anyone accused of behaving like this will rationalise their behaviour with what they think are objective reasons for doing so, but this often ends up being a list of reasons as to why they think she’s too junior / incompetent / inexperienced. It’s not just apprentices or graduates that experience this; women of all levels have been there. We need to recognise that it’s happening and make conscious efforts to apply the same standards to women in tech as we do to men.
For women, I suppose it helps to be aware of what’s going on, and to respond succinctly and professionally when questioned — not only does it give a good impression, but it should help to get things done in half the time they would take when you have to justify every nut and bolt of the project you’re working on.
For men, consider what types of questions you’re asking of women, and why you’re asking them. Are you underestimating them out of habit? Is there a reason you struggle to trust female colleagues? Or is there no explanation that comes to mind, but you recognise that you’re doing it? Try to avoid this behaviour, and call it out if you see other managers doing it.
Think about what the real issue is. Are you anxious that she’s not up to the job? Concerned the process is taking too long? Don’t see the logic in how she’s performing the task? Worried that women aren’t cut out for a “man’s job”? Scared to give her constructive feedback in case she cries? Seriously, think about it. Is this a justified concern? Then deal with it as you would if they were male. If it’s not a justified concern, or if you prefer, justifiable, then you need to do some work on yourself.