Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Unhelpful Behavior

Note: I recently shared the content of this entry with a group of friends. The feedback was so interesting and--dare I say it?--thought-provoking, I thought I'd post it here.


As a woman, I have occasion to reflect not only on my own behaviors, but also to observe the behaviors of other women. Despite all the strides that have been made in women’s rights, there are still things we do that seem to me to hold us back. Here are just a couple of observations:

1. We apologize too much.

When we make mistakes or gaffes, we own them (or we should), but we also seem to over compensate in the area of apologizing. Most folks aren’t looking to hear an apology. They’re looking to hear how we’re going to fix what we flubbed. If someone has helped us remedy our gaffe, they’re also looking to us to express appreciation.

For example, I recently noted that I forgot to make a copy of an important document for my files at work. I had to go to the manager of my group and ask him to contact the folks to whom I’d sent said document and request a copy. I also told him that I’d make copying important documents a priority upon our future receipt of them.

Today, he e-mailed me and said he’d been in touch with the folks with the document. I replied back and said I appreciated his assistance with this matter. End of story. No “I’m sorry again for the oversight.” Please note: watch your male colleagues. They rarely apologize. They just state whatever it is they have to state and move on.

2. We do things that are certainly polite and seemingly helpful, but in fact reinforce our subordinate stature.

When we’re with our male colleagues—whether it’s arriving at a meeting or going out to dinner or collaborating on a team—we defer to them in ways that send the subtle but unmistakable message that we agree with the outdated notion that we’re subordinate.

For example, I watched this morning as our gaggle of consultants arrived for their weekly meeting with our vice president. We require all guests—whether they are employees of our company or not—to sign in at reception. I watched three women arrive with their male counterparts and every single one of these women, in addition to entering their own names into the log, entered the names of their colleagues. They prefaced the action by saying things like, “I’ll take care of signing you in” or “Let me do that for you.”

Ladies! These are grown men. They can write their own names in a book, just as you can write yours. And don’t rush to get them a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, either. Oh, sure, I know. You’re already in the kitchen and it’s easy enough to do, but again, think about the message it’s sending. Unless they’re reciprocating, knock it off!

And in meetings, don’t defer to your male colleagues as the only ones who can impart further light and knowledge on your project. Own that project! Know your talking points! Be bold and confident. And while it is certainly important to ask the guys what they think, don’t start with a man. Turn to one of your female colleague and say, "Rebecca, what do you think of X?”

3. Stop using that ‘little girl’ voice and grow some vocal chords!

I’m noticing a trend lately where many 20-somethings and even a few 30-somethings women talk in voices that are better suited to teenagers and little girls. While this may seem warm and endearing, it isn’t. Trust me. Now, I’m not suggesting that you have to go all butch and lower your voice to match a man’s, but taking it down a notch wouldn’t hurt, either.

When you sound like you’re 16, you’re doing little to prove that you’re professionally competent. In fact, a recent study reported on NPR has shown that women who talk like adolescents are less likely to be taken seriously by their male counterparts.

Think Kathryn Hepburn not Jessica Simpson. Think Charlize Theron not Paris Hilton. Or Helen Thomas not Peggy Noonan. Or Maggie Thatcher or Angela Merkel or Elizabeth Edwards or Jodie Olsen. Or your favorite aunt or grandmother or mom (assuming they don’t sound like they’re 16!)

You can still be feminine without sounding like you’re underage.

Oh, and knock it off with the hee-hee-hee giggling in the workplace, too! Not cute. Definitely not cute. Learn to chuckle. You don’t have to guffaw, but those little twitters all the time are just silly.

Of course, all of this is a fine line and a double-edged sword. I’ve worked with women who were unnecessarily boisterous and inappropriately flirtatious and I’ve worked with guys who were the same. Neither is impressive. Likewise, I’ve worked with women who were perceived as bitches while their male counterparts were seen as assertive. This is an inappropriate double standard. Finally, there’s nothing to say we can’t be polite and helpful, but we should be mindful of when and why we do it and how it might be received. Somehow, we must strike a balance between the radical, bra-burning feminism of our mother’s era and the neo-classic feminism1 of today’s young woman.


1. Better paid, more educated, more opportunities for professional advancement, independent longer, less likely to have to fight for fair treatment in the workplace, etc., yet also less likely to appreciate or grasp the effort it took to create a world and workplace that is a little more equal for them.


Illustration copyrights: Unknown (Google Images) and Kirk Anderson, Kirktoons, 1991, respectively.


Terri@SteelMagnolia said...

Ah... very good post!

Anonymous said...

This isn't really a workplace issue, but one of my peeves is grown women who wear jumpers. How can we expect to be taken seriously if we dress like little girls? Bleah.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what you're saying here. It's good that you posted this, because it never hurts to raise awareness of those things we sometimes don't even notice, which we should, so we can change those things that need to change.

Great stuff.

Liz said...

I like this post! And I agree with you.

Janet M Kincaid said...

Terri: Thank you!

JA: I totally agree. Jumpers are a definite no-no, as are those 'baby doll' dresses that are so popular. I saw one the other day that would have been totally appropriate in the bedroom, but was completely out of place in the office. Astonishing!

SML: Hear! Hear! I find myself, as I said, apologizing all the time and then realizing there's really no need. It's insidious. And wrong.

Liz: Thank you! And I agree back!