If #NotAllMen winds you up - here is the mansplanation

A thought experiment for men who don't understand feminism and feminists

Two businessmen on bench looking after a woman.

Two businessmen on bench looking after a woman.


The best thought experiments allow us to test a principle that ordinarily we would never be able to examine. In response to the spirited debate about the difficulties some men have with modern feminist discourse, this experiment is designed to test the empathy of Irish men.

Your name is Patrick, and imagine you are a high-flying young banker and you get a job with a prestigious firm in, for the sake of argument, London.

Picture the scene - you arrive at the impressive offices, and your first sense is of how subtly unfamiliar it all is. Above all, most of your new colleagues are, how shall we put this, from a certain background. This is what the Establishment looks like, you realise. Your colleagues are, by and large, the Oxbridge set, and almost uniformly privileged since birth. Very smart, for sure, but also so very certain of their smartness, so very confident of their belonging here. And why wouldn’t they - this environment was built by their forebears, it is their natural habitat.

They project this inherited privilege with a range of behaviours, from expensive pastimes to niche sports, and most obviously with the accent, that crystal-cutting diction that is so at odds with your Irish brogue.

Of course, your new colleagues are very welcoming. You strike up a real bond with some of them. Lots of them are brilliant, funny, warm people.

But friendly and all as most of these colleagues are, you are acutely aware you are not one of them. There is the frequent teasing, good-natured, usually, but almost always condescending. You often get called “Paddy”, in an exaggerated Irish accent. And then there are all the jokes about drinking, or getting drunk. You can slag back a bit, but you don’t want to push it too far.

As your career develops, you realise that your knowledge and judgment are superior to many of your well-bred colleagues, but a natural reticence in this environment, your Irish self-effacement, means you don’t interject as much as you should.

You do very well, but have a nagging sense that your slight otherness is holding you back. You see obviously less talented people from the right background arrive and race up the ladder ahead of you. Is it the connections, you wonder, the right family or friends? Is it just that they better project a sense of belonging?

At one point, on a work night out, a senior colleague who never paid you too much attention, drunk on champagne, starts to deliver a stream of patronising jokes at your Irishness, jokes that quickly devolve in to straight-up abuse. Your other colleagues shift nervously, perhaps try to change the subject, but no one outright challenges him.

You are shocked and hurt. Stunned, you confide in another, trusted colleague, describing the sense of powerlessness and humiliation you felt, and the larger sense of diminishment that comes from being constantly reminded of your outsider status.

“That’s awful, I truly didn’t realise the extent of it,” he begins, with obvious sympathy. You have an ally, you think, someone who understands. And then he straightens himself and says “But, Paddy, not all of us are like that, you know? Lots of us really like you Irish guys. Not all of us are like that.”

Here is where you discover the result of the thought experiment - how do you react to your colleague’s defensive response? Do you acknowledge this is a good point, and that you didn’t mean to make this colleague feel bad for his inherited privilege? Or do you shout in frustration, exasperated at how he could so badly miss the point - this isn’t about one instance of abuse, you want to roar, this is about a larger sense of cumulative unfairness.

Luckily for Irish men, we don’t tend to face this sort of subtle or overt prejudice on a daily basis. And few, if any, workplaces are so totally dominated by people of a certain background that outsiders feel so excluded. Right?

Such experiments are useful for testing the limits of our empathy. The hypersensitive reaction some men have to the #NotAllMen hashtag - the sense that we, personally, are being impugned by feminist criticism of sexism - is a perfect illustration of such an empathy deficit.

Perhaps the next time you feel like dismissing the arguments of feminists complaining about the difficulties of being a woman, or any minority discussing the challenges they face, you should pause and consider this thought experiment. What result did you get?

  • Davin O’Dwyer is an Irish Times journalist
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