Sisterhood Blog

It's Time to Stop Apologizing for Our Presence

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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I really like Devra Ferst’s recent Sisterhood post about how women too often precede a question with an apology. And there’s so much more to – unapologetically – say!

It took me a very long time to stop apologizing before asking questions myself, to stop feeling wracked with self-doubt about my ability to keep up in my professional life as a journalist — especially because, when I was starting out, I was surrounded by male colleagues who were powerfully aggressive in their personal interactions as they pursued stories. There were few women doing serious journalism in Jewish publications at the time.

Occasionally my daughter Girlchik will say “I’m sorry” before asking me something. She’s 11 years old, and this is something I’ve only heard in the past six months or so. Does it kick in with adolescence? She’s sensitive to other people and she mostly says it when she knows I’m rushing around trying to get everything done. So I read it as an expression of her awareness that she’s adding to the multiple things on which I’m trying to concentrate. Nonetheless, each and every time I ask her why she’s apologizing — and tell her that there’s no need to.

This reflection of insecurity is, without a doubt, a female affliction.

Nearly 20 years ago, back before most of us had kids, a bunch of us working for Jewish publications would get together every few weeks in an Upper West Side apartment to kibbitz, have a beer and ostensibly relax. I was the only girl (and yes, I felt like a girl among men), was among the youngest there, and for sure had the least experience.

I was intimidated by these men, most of whom were also tremendously Jewishly knowledgable, which at the time I was decidedly not.

While I hung awkwardly around the edge of the room, hoping someone would talk to me, most of the guys engaged in vigorous verbal jousting about whatever political drama was front and center that week. Anything I said was prefaced with a meek apology, I am sure, while in contrast, the men blithely went on with their verbal sparring and little apparent awareness of any dynamic but their own.

For those women who have spent much time in conference rooms with mostly male colleagues and bosses, I’m sure this sounds familiar.

So what are we doing wrong here? Even if we’re not explicitly teaching our girls to preface a question or comment with an “I’m sorry,” something in our culture communicates that women should be cautious about expressing an opinion, at least in male-dominated contexts like many workplaces. I wonder if women do the same apology thing in female-heavy professional environments, like meetings of elementary school teachers or nurses?

What is it that causes us to feel the need to be perceived, in meetings with male co-workers and bosses, as less opinionated, forthright, intelligent than we so often are?

It is a reality that men do not want to feel dominated by women, and to be heard we must be attuned to that.

And there will always be men who call any woman willing to exercise leadership, like Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton, the “b” word.

Interestingly, I never heard that term lobbed at Sarah Palin, perhaps because her down-home folksy manner and the apparent limitations of her intellectual acuity made her non-threatening to men. Nevertheless, there is an art — a feminine art, if you will — to being able to feel confident about expressing opinions and asking questions in ways that will be heard.

It’s our job to teach our daughters and nieces and the young women who look to us for mentoring how to do that.

Here are the first two lessons:

Lesson #1: Act confident even if you don’t feel it. Men do it all the time.

Lesson #2: Never preface a question or comment with “I’m sorry.” Because there is no reason to apologize for your presence, and no one will take you seriously if you do. See Lesson #1.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Workplace, Sorry, Apologies

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