Beginning in 1961 and going all the way through the 1980s, a British author named Peter O’Donnell wrote a series of books about a female version of James Bond. Her name was Modesty Blaise. Anyone remember her? I loved those books and still do – Modesty was the total package in what I looked up to in a female heroine: smart, strong, able to kick butt, and most assuredly taking no prisoners. In her first adventure story I think O’Donnell was afraid that she would be less relatable to female readers if she didn’t have something “feminine” about her. To solve this, he gave her the annoying character trait that after a tough mission, she would seek out a quiet place to have a good cry. I know, right!?
In another book – I forget the title now – she and a male friend have been captured and imprisoned by the bad guys. During the ordeal she’s giving her male friend all these orders so that they can successfully extricate themselves out of the situation and not get killed. A positive thing one would think. But then she says, “Sorry to play the bossy bitch.”
I was outraged with that bit of dialogue. “Yeah, sooo sorry I’m over here trying to save your life and all…” It was just so out of character for her and so unnecessary, but apparently O’Donnell, again, wanted to give her that “feminine touch” so that his readers would know that just because she could beat up three men with one hand tied behind her back, was a dead-shot with all sorts of guns and so on, she was still ladylike enough to want to apologize for having to order a man around in order to save both their lives!
I thought about Modesty Blaise a few days ago when I went online to try to find a very interesting list about how male and female bosses who exhibit the same strong behavior are perceived very differently in the workplace. I’m sure you know the one. It starts out with “A man is a leader, a woman is bossy” and makes comparisons from there.
I couldn’t find the list but I did find an article from March 31, 2014, entitled “The Social Science Behind Bossiness,” by Daria Burke. In it she points out, “A study cited by the Girl Scouts of America in support of the [Ban Bossy] campaign found that by middle school, 25% of girls are less likely than boys to assume leadership positions for fear of being called ‘bossy.’ This raises an important question: How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them to the top?”
Girls learn that they are expected to behave differently than boys (and of course boys learn this too.) For starters, they can’t be bossy. And if they can’t be bossy they must be polite (which I don’t think are mutually exclusive qualities). They must always mind their manners and help out around the house. Boys can be taught manners too, of course, but if they do something rude it doesn’t really raise eyebrows in the same way as if a girl were to do something equally as rude.
I attended a professional women’s conference years ago. The motivational speaker there talked about this “apologetic” phenomenon and pointed out that women say, “I’m sorry,” all the time. However, men rarely do (she was speaking of professional/workplace situations, not personal relationships and the like). Or at least not to the extent that women will. She explained that language is power and being “sorry” when there is nothing to apologize for weakens a person – especially in the business world. Men do not want to appear weak whereas women, in an effort to get ahead, want to appear likeable.
A previous employer of mine shared a similar sentiment with me once. There was an error at work – I assumed it was mine. It was not. But assuming it was mine, and prior to even getting at the root of the problem, I apologized profusely for having made it. Mr. X said he believed women are all too often more than willing to accept blame and therefore apologize automatically before they even realize what they’re actually apologizing for…that it’s almost as if it’s ingrained in them.
I have to agree with him. I see it all the time with myself and the women around me. It doesn’t matter what the situation is. If we reach for the same book as someone else or we reach for the same coffee cup in the meeting room or if we go to speak at a meeting and another person speaks at the same time, the woman tends to back off and say, “I’m sorry” first.
A friend of mine had a different take on this. She said that she apologizes automatically even when she isn’t in the wrong, not because she thinks she is wrong, but just because it’s polite. And she was confident that all those folks she apologized to really knew that it was they who should be apologizing to her, not the other way around. According to her, the polite thing is always to accept the blame even when someone else is at fault. Ackk!! I’m not sure who made up this ridiculous rule, but I agree that women do tend to feel this way.
But is being overly polite any better than feeling inherently wrong all the time? (Of course, I didn’t point out to my friend that she was talking about social situations, not situations where she was a businesswoman who really needed to command the respect of her peers, both male and female.)
I realize that I’m basically talking semantics. However, semantics are important. I think that was the motivational speaker’s point. Language is power. Words are power. They change the entire context of the conversation. The entire feeling of a sentence can be changed when you swap words that are seemingly synonymous, as can the “appearance” of the person uttering them.
For instance, instead of saying “I’m sorry” when the situation calls for it – and only when the situation calls for it – maybe women should say “Excuse me” more often. It might seem like a small, even silly, change, but that way we aren’t apologizing constantly (for something we haven’t done wrong), yet we’re not sacrificing politeness and, hopefully, at the same time we’ll retain – or rather regain, a bit of our personal power.