The Patronising Colleague

Patronising and mansplaining are both irredeemably etymologically male. I cannot think of female equivalents. That isn’t to say that women can never be patronising or indulge in mansplaining, but I suspect the frequency with which they go in for such activities is rather less than for men. For many women, being patronised is an ever present annoyance. Mansplaining – a term of much more recent creation – is equally really, really tedious. The only thing in its favour is it tends to be on a one-off basis, whereas being patronised may be a long-term experience.  I wrote about an incident which got close to mansplaining several years ago, I suspect before I’d encountered the word. There are far more egregious examples in the public domain: as an example, a woman author being lectured on a book which they themselves have written, and flatly being contradicted when they try to point out this straightforward fact. One should be very careful of who you write off as an idiot simply by virtue of their gender!

But, to turn to the long-term irritation that is patronage and/or being patronised. Maybe once upon a time patronage was a good thing (although it surely always smacked of the old boy’s network). There is no doubt that sponsorship would be the modern version of patronage in the sense of putting someone’s name forward in the context of job vacancies, prizes etc. But being patronising now has a significantly different and more negative connotation. As a quick look in the dictionary indicates, it has overtones of being superior even if ostensibly the actions are kind. Certainly I am sure many of us recall being treated by someone apparently with praise, but the remarks are qualified by ‘at your stage of career’ or ‘that’s impressive for you’ or something equivalent. Or, the variant I well remember from mid-career episodes of frustration, to be allowed to make a point of view and told that it was all very interesting but, in essence, no one was going to take the slightest bit of notice. The people who did this to me no doubt thought they were being very kind in even permitting me to open my mouth, but they had already decided before I did so to pay no heed.

It is interesting to try to analyse the motivations for this kind of behaviour. I would hypothesise that the worst offenders of being patronising are those whose egos are most fragile. A confident person knows they are not always right – be it about science, or strategy or what colour to paint the walls. The context to some extent does not matter. And since they know this, but are confident enough to believe that they may be right more often than not and if they are wrong they have something to learn, they want to hear other people’s views so that progress can be made. Those people who, on the other hand, have little confidence in their own judgement are much more likely to bluster and wish not to hear anyone else’s views in case their own ignorance is shown up or it becomes plain just how bad their judgement is. And then there are those who are so convinced of their brilliance – even if the evidence for this in other people’s eyes may be thin – that they simply cannot conceive that anyone else has anything to teach them or offer the wider world. They know it all and have done it all, regardless of any actual facts.

So, in the face of patronising behaviour, what can you do? This is a hard question to answer. In the case of mansplaining it may be tempting to tell the offender that they are ‘an ignorant little twerp who should have humility enough to check their facts before opening their mouth, who should read more and speak less’ – but, apart from the momentary satisfaction of seeing the guilty party squirm, it is unlikely to do much good. Personally, I suspect a quiet correction followed by deliberately walking away, turning one’s back, is probably a more dignified response and better for the blood pressure too.

But long term patronising colleagues are a different matter and it isn’t clear that direct action on the victim’s part can usually solve the problem. It is, however, probably another situation where third parties can help out either publicly in meetings or having a quiet word later with the guilty party.

One tactic the sufferer could try to adopt, when the offender is someone who is higher up the ladder, is to take them up on their, quite possibly insincere, offer of help. Try lines such as:

‘Would you be so kind as to read my grant application?’
‘Thank you so much for being so supportive. Would you be willing to nominating me for this award please?’
‘I’m facing this tricky problem with a student and I’m sure your insight could be helpful.’

With those lines you have nothing to lose. They may choose not to help (but they’ll probably not offer ‘help’ again which may be a blessing). If they do help out you can choose whether or not to take on board the advice they give, but if you do get the grant or award they are likely to believe it was their brilliance that made the difference. That way the relationship will not go west in the way that is likely to ensue from saying head on ‘stop being so smug and patronising’.

The challenge I still (perhaps surprisingly) seem to face, is how to deal with people who aren’t higher up the ladder but who still seem to regard it OK to patronise or mansplain to me presumably simply because I’m a woman. If anyone has some useful tips for that situation I’d love to hear them, because I haven’t got beyond thinking in terms of a passive aggressive response, which I really don’t think is helpful or wise. It is a sad fact that many people do not seem able to stop being patronising regardless of their audience or the unsuitability and unattractiveness of such behaviour. If only they knew that others do note it (and indeed compare notes about it) and it isn’t actually going to assist them in their own progression.


This entry was posted in Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Patronising Colleague

  1. xykademiqz says:

    A week ago, I came back from a conference in my core community; I am one of the senior/established people there. Yet, this did not stop a whippersnapper who’s some 10+ years my junior (a young prof elsewhere) to argue with me how women have smaller brains, especially a small amygdala, and how of course male and female brains are different and just by looking at a brain you can say if it belongs to a man or woman… Any attempt on my side to diffuse his tirade and bring it back to the right track — arguing that, as is true in the morphology of nearly all nonreproductive human organs, the difference between the average sizes for men and women is much smaller than the the variance within each gender and that from looking at a brain alone unless it’s from the tails of distributions you are very unlikely to properly guess if male or female — fell on deaf ears. He barely stopped short of saying that I am of course stupider than him because I am a woman, and science says so!

    What exactly do I have to do/say/achieve professionally to avoid clueless douches (apparently there are ever fresh batches constantly being grown) from condescending to me? I am senior enough that, if I were a vindictive bitch, I could damage this person’s career; his hubris prevents him from seeing how stupid he’s being, in addition to being misogynistic.

    • One doesn’t need to be vindictive to feel that someone who is so insensitive and arrogant is perhaps not best suited for promotion, sitting on some committee they aspire to, invited speaker-status etc. I agree that some people seem completely unaware of the damage they do to themselves by their attitudes but it is something I have noted myself.

  2. Rachel says:

    Sadly, women play that game too. I spent over 9 years working for one organisation in which my boss – a woman – gave my colleague a rise ‘because he has a young family to support’ – but repeatedly overlooked me to such an extent that, when I made a stand and my request for a rise had to be sanctioned by the upper echelons, they (mostly men) were horrified at how low a salary I was on relative to my output.

    As the only woman on the senior management team of another organisation, I was subject to the worst kind of patronising in that it was extremely subtle and the individuals involved saw themselves as pro-women etc etc. It manifested as my views and proposals being heard but overlooked or turned down only to become practise months later with no acknowledgement that I had been right all along or that they were even my ideas in the first place. On one occasion my requests for a piece of software that had huge implications for my department were completely overridden without any acknowledgement of the impact on my area and when I brought this up with the chief executive it was effectively ‘there there never mind it’s done now’ with no attempt to address the matter with the relevant director. I was part of the team. But then again, I wasn’t.

Comments are closed.