I have died a little, several times, hearing a smart woman apologize for sharing her opinion. Throw me six feet under so long as you’ll send a hot vampire who cares about feminism.
It’s not just “I’m sorry, but,” at the beginning of a sentence. These apologies also show up mid-conversation stream as “I’m rambling, and I’m not making any sense” even though no one has said so. They often masquerade as hierarchal concerns, such as “I’m just an intern, but,” or “I’m new here, but,” or “I’m young, but.”
I do and have done all these things, too, so don’t think I’m judging you if you relate as a speaker. The fact is that our culture clearly communicates that women will be better liked and more likely to get ahead if we downplay our abilities but have confidence in ourselves. That’s contradictory by design, because in this framework no one can win. You’re supposed to like yourself but not too much. However that works.
It is somewhat fashionable, in some circles, to tell women to stop apologizing for ourselves so that we can get ahead. There are many problems with this approach.
It’s an utterly false premise that we can self-help our way out of gender discrimination. That’s not to say that we can’t resolve gender discrimination, because through cultural and political action we as women (and men and girls and boys) absolutely can. But picking apart women’s personal lives and offering to-do lists for personal success is neither a recipe for equality and justice, nor a feminist practice in general.
Moreover, telling an apologizing woman that she has nothing to apologize for actually creates an almost real reason for an apology! Because what we need to examine is not the psyche of the woman who uses this common gendered speech mechanism, but rather where it fits into an overall pattern of expected behavior.
Women tend to be expected to build consensus, take the needs of others into account. and work to make those around them feel comfortable. These behaviors aren’t necessarily bad, and can actually be strong leadership qualities when chosen and practiced in context, but it’s confining and discriminatory as a general matter to expect women to be oriented toward and accountable to the group.
Perhaps what we most need to question is the assumption that it’s okay to tell women what to do.
Finally, the biggest problem with telling women not to apologize for ourselves is that it doesn’t examine the root cause of why a woman feels she needs to apologize for herself at a particular moment in her life.
It may well be the case that she is surrounded by people who discount her opinion. In that case, the real problem is not a pattern of speech but that those people surrounding her are horrible and not in any way conducive to growth and development. People who discount you are horrible bosses, lovers, partners, friends, and members of your network, and the solution is to find a way to remove them from your life, even if that takes time and planning (apology optional).
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, true, but the proper piece of consent to remove is their influence rather than your coping behaviors.
This essay was inspired by my tendency to challenge those younger women who through conversation show me a tendency to preface their brilliant ideas and opinions with apologies for their lack of experience. I have multiple times told them that by virtue of being in a meeting or in a room, they belong, and I still believe that. We are never “just interns” or “just new,” we are human beings.
But the overall situation is more complex.