After reading this post by Brianna Wu, I was struck by Case Study #1 Nina, in which a male coworker said that he had a different reaction when he heard criticism from women as opposed to men. He became more defensive more quickly when he heard it from women. I mulled this over while scrolling through posts on Facebook, and a friend posted a Pantene commercial that she, and several others, thought was as empowering as the Dove Real Beauty Sketches of a few years ago. The Pantene commercial begins with a simple question: Why are women always apologizing?
The commercial shows several senarios where women apologize before they make a statemet or ask for something. Then it says, “Don’t be sorry.” The same women in the same senarios make their statements without apologizing first. It’s a great message. It’s empowering. It appeals to those who strive to be strong women.
And it’s completely unrealistic.
Why do women apologize anyway?
It’s pretty simple. It protects them.
If a male (and sometimes female) co-worker has problems hearing any suggestions or criticisms from a woman, apologizing first softens the words. It makes the meat of the comment more acceptible. It’s never fun to be mocked by coworkers or your boss because they see your words as a threat and try to ameliorate them by calling you a bitch, uptight, unwomanly, too pushy, too forceful. Sorry makes comments digestible by those who get defensive when a woman speaks. It sucks, but that’s the way it is.
Being perceived as a strong woman is not an asset. Strong women are ridiculed, ignored, deplored. Men see them as a threat, and do their best to silence them by using the previously stated ways. When men see women as less, any evidence they could be equal is frightening, and not tolerated. I see this at work all the time. The manager laughs at women’s suggestions in front of their coworkers, even if the idea is one that he eventually uses after a man suggests it. He will call a female supervisor into his office because he is concerned about the tone she used to point out that a male employee is not doing his work, but ignores the tone used by the male employee when he told the female supervisor to shut up and stop yelling at him, even though she had actually calmly pointed out he had not done his assigned work. The manager may not realize the favoritism, but his employees have. It’s the reason the female employees rarely bring up things that male employees do wrong, like stealing. There’s no point, since they are more likely to get in trouble with the boss for being a rat rather than the perpetrator getting in trouble for doing something wrong. It’s the reason the men do what they want, even if it hurts the workplace and morale, and the women keep silent.
“I’m sorry” will never fix workplace inequality, but it is something women have realized allows them a voice when dealing with men. A small voice, but one nonetheless. It’s better than nothing.