This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.

 

 

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The Lost Art of Apologising

This week, singer Cee-Lo Green tweeted that a rape is only a rape when the victim is conscious: “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” and then deleted his ill-advised tweets on the subject. He then came back again to say sorry: “I sincerely apologize for my comments being taken so far out of context.” It stirred up such a shitstorm he has since deleted his account.

Let’s have a look at what went wrong with that apology. He didn’t say sorry for saying such a dreadful thing, instead he was sorry WE took his comments ‘out of context.’ This is the classic Non Apology. He might as well just have said, “My bad” – the ultimate Non Apology.

A few years ago, I came across a classic Non Apologist who kept saying, “I’m sorry you feel like that,” whenever he did something to upset me. He was sorry I felt like that, not that he’d MADE me feel like that. I then discovered that this is a Thing. A deliberate tactic to avoid the allegedly huge climbdown of ego that is required for a proper apology. I hear it all the time now, so seeing Cee-Lo say it when he was so blatantly in the wrong *almost* made me laugh.

I dated a guy a couple of years ago whose mantra was, “never explain, never apologise.” It was one of those alarm-bell moments that made me think, “I’ll always explain, and I’ll always apologise.” (It also made me think, “Bye…”) It’s an apparent bastardisation of the Disraeli quote, “Never complain, never explain,” which Kate Moss subsequently nicked. I think I prefer Disraeli’s version.

I once had a relationship with someone who behaved dreadfully towards me, who knew he had, and kept trying to get me to meet him so he could force his Non Apology on me, with a full ‘mansplanation’ of why the relationship had broken down and he’d immediately found someone else. Because I refused to meet him I eventually got it by email: “I don’t think I did anything to you that I should feel ashamed of.” You go on telling yourself that, sunshine.

Anyway, the Cee-Lo story has really made me think about the Lost Art of Apologising and why we find it so difficult. Even a shove from a stranger on a busy pavement elicits a strange hissing sound as they start to say the word but it dies on their tongue. ‘My bad’ became the replacement ‘sorry’ for a while a few years ago but even that feels like it’s disappeared. The classic ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’ response is so ubiquitous now that even I’ve said it once or twice. I think it stinks.

I’m convinced that British people are more likely to say sorry when someone else has bumped into them at the supermarket checkout than if they themselves have really upset another person. In many cases, we’re offering up apologies all the time where they’re not required, and have become the butt of many an American joke because of it. Often, the worst offenders are women. We apologise for asking questions in the workplace: “Sorry, this is probably a stupid question, but…” and that drives me mad. I’ve trained myself not to do it after receiving some really good training some years ago where this tendency was pointed out. Never apologise for asking smart questions, ladies.

Now, I make a huge effort to say sorry when it matters. If I accidentally whack someone with my bag on the Tube I make a massive deal about looking them in the eye and apologising. There’s nearly always a scowl there when I do it, that immediately breaks as the words come out. They look genuinely shocked that I’ve managed to get beyond the ‘ssss’ to the full word.

I always find it easy to apologise for mistakes in the workplace (I have a ‘Hands Up It Was Me, Guv’ policy) but find it way more difficult to say I’m sorry in personal settings. I genuinely think it’s one of the bravest acts a person can carry out and the effect of it in most cases is to completely nullify the anger or hurt one has caused in the other person. Plus a serious weight is lifted off your chest once it’s done. People really respect you for it, and that’s because saying sorry takes guts.

Cee-Lo could have avoided all the shit if he’d just said sorry; that his comments were untrue, inappropriate and wrong. Simples. What he actually said is unfortunately what so many people would say these days, as they slip and slide away from taking full responsibility for their words and deeds.

Some refuse to apologise for their words under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’: earlier this week, the Twitter troll who victimised Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy with rape threats last year, who is now facing jail, said: “It is a sad day for free speech. I think my tweets have been misinterpreted.” 

Well I think the saddest day for free speech is when people fail to freely say sorry to each other for causing very obvious distress and hurt.

Cee-Lo – just say the words and let’s all move on.

http://jezebel.com/cee-lo-green-tweets-people-who-have-been-really-raped-r-1629482868

http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/06/05/courageous-leaders-dont-make-excuses-they-apologize/

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/02/stella-creasy-rape-threats-a-joke