So, here’s a quick test: guess which dangerous situation this experienced professional is describing:
"I maintain eye contact," he explains, "ensure I only offer what’s wanted and definitely do not talk over them." Hostage negotiator, maybe? Soldier patrolling among hostile locals? Nope, this is a Westminster source explaining to last weekend’s The Times how they’re dealing with the sudden emergence of women in Number 10. Actual women! In actual power! No wonder everyone, from civil servants to male broadcasters, is having to be "very careful", this brave source explained. Nobody wants to be accused of mansplaining to Theresa May – let alone inadvertently looking down her dress.
The odd thing about this lady-taming strategy is that it sounds so very like the way Whitehall treated David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, too. Having watched all three of them interact with everyone, from military top brass to junior aides, I’m struggling to remember anyone randomly offering whatever unwanted thoughts occurred, or repeatedly talking over the PM while staring fixedly at his crotch. Why, it’s almost as if people generally do behave more carefully around heads of government, but only get massively self-conscious about it when those heads happen to be female. What’s fascinating, however, is that Theresa May seems to be learning to use this particular kind of male discomfort to her advantage.
Last week, she got out of a sticky moment at Prime Minister’s Questions by making a noticeably saucy joke. Asked by the male Tory MP Richard Bacon if she could offer reassurance to "fat white middle-aged men" feeling left behind by the progress of women and ethnic minorities, she growled Mae West-style that "perhaps he should come up and see me some time". Tories loved it, Bacon looked flattered, yet gently put back in his box – doubtless he hasn't helped his promotion prospects – but the sight of a feminist prime minister apparently flirting her way out of trouble was mildly disconcerting. Does it mean junior men can flirt back, or would that be hideously sexist? Is it sexist even to be discussing this?
And that’s basically a grander version of the trick May has pulled off for decades with her clothes. While everyone was busy arguing about whether it’s wrong to notice her heels and hemlines, or whether she wouldn’t wear leopard print if she didn’t want people noticing, she was quietly consolidating power.
Men who really want to avoid offending a female boss, in other words, should worry less about the fact that she’s female and more about her being the boss
Interestingly, it’s also a trick used by Margaret Thatcher, who certainly wasn't above using flirtation as a weapon. As her former foreign secretary and chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, once said, she knew her gender was "something of which her interlocutors were always aware". She simply learnt to use it to keep male colleagues – many of whom secretly resented her authority – wrong-footed and confused. As much of Whitehall seems to be by Theresa May.
Mansplaining is, admittedly, one of those blurry concepts that women grasp instantly, but which leave many men feeling baffled and threatened. How can they avoid doing it when they don't even understand what it is they're not supposed to do?
But what marks mansplaining out from just being rude or patronising – as both sexes can be to each other – is the blindness. The classic mansplainer tends to be significantly less knowledgeable or bright than the woman he’s loudly patronising, but simply refuses to acknowledge it, because he's the man, so obviously he must be the smart one. Never mind that she works for NASA and he failed physics GCSE, he still feels totally qualified to lecture her about rocket science. It’s the wilful refusal to see past gender to what you really are, not just the condescension, that’s so maddening.
So, a male expert telling Theresa May something she doesn’t want to hear isn’t necessarily mansplaining. He may simply be doing his job. But a man insisting on telling her something she doesn’t need to hear because she already knows it, or treating her as if she couldn’t possibly understand this tricky issue, or failing to recognise when she’s totally across this brief and he’s frankly winging it? He's on thin ice.
Men who really want to avoid offending a female boss, in other words, should worry less about the fact that she’s female and more about her being the boss. Just like the ones they’ve been dealing with comfortably for centuries.