The Gender Apology Gap

Most of the women with whom I’m friends have two common attributes. They’re smart. They’re tough. Not tough in the “beat up people in bars” sense, although I have little doubt they would if warranted, but tough in the sense that they’re nobody’s pushover. There is a space between overly assertive and perpetual victims. Somehow, this is the space they occupy.

So they don’t constantly apologize for things they haven’t done wrong. Yet, that seems to be a stereotype some women apply to themselves, and Ruth Whippman is angry about it.

Take apologizing, the patient zero of the assertiveness movement. Women do too much of it, according to countless op-ed essays, books, apps and shampoo ads. There’s even a Gmail plug-in that is supposed to help us quit this apparently self-destructive habit by policing our emails for signs of excessive contrition, underlining anything of an overly apologetic nature in angry red wiggles.

The obvious response to someone who feels they apologize too much is to apologize less, which is exactly what Whippman complains about.

Indeed many of our problems with male entitlement and toxic behavior both in the workplace and elsewhere could well be traced back to a fundamental unwillingness among men to apologize, or even perceive that they have anything to apologize for. Certainly many emails I have received from men over the years might have benefited from a Gmail plug-in pointing out the apology-shaped hole. The energy we expend in getting women to stop apologizing might be better spent encouraging men to start.

If women obsess about other women’s behaviors in response to women complaining about how their behaviors disserve their aspirations, and feel entitled to dictate to each other how they should behave to solve their problems, there is one piece missing from this complaint: men. Be assertive. Don’t be assertive. Be obsequious, purple and clairvoyant, if it’s what you want to be. That’s up to you.

Men aren’t telling women how to behave. Even when there’s a discussion lawyer to lawyer, one of whom is male and the other female, it tends to eventually devolve into a cry of sexism or mansplaining, even though there is nothing gender-related involved. And at that point, the man is told that he must now apologize for his misogyny.

Or else (the else being conclusive proof that he’s misogynist because he’s been told by a woman he’s wrong, and it’s sexist even if there is nothing sexist involved). Sorry, but there is nothing about the Rule Against Perpetuities that involves gender, and when two lawyers argue about it, the woman doesn’t win because she’s systemically oppressed. And by expressing an accurate view of law, one lawyer to another, the man isn’t being unduly assertive by not acquiescing to the other lawyer’s misstatement of law.

After all, one man’s “assertive” is often another woman’s abrasive, entitled or rude. Surely many of our current most pressing social and political problems — from #MeToo to campus rape, school shootings to President Trump’s Twitter posturing — are caused not by a lack of assertiveness in women but by an overassertiveness among men. In the workplace, probably unsurprisingly to many women who are routinely talked over, patronized or ignored by male colleagues, research shows that rather than women being underconfident, men tend to be overconfident in relation to their actual abilities. Women generally aren’t failing to speak up; the problem is that men are refusing to pipe down.

Do women need to “fix” themselves? I demur. Whether there is such a woman problem is not a question I wish to take on, first because each woman is an actual, living, breathing, sentient human being, and gets to decide how she wishes to live her life, behave and interact with others. If she wants to spend her days crying, that’s her choice. If she wants to spend her days laughing, that’s her choice as well. Personally, I prefer to hang around with people who laugh, but that’s just me.

“Women: Improve yourselves!” has always been a baseline instruction of both the world at large and the self-help movement. Take the whole “Women Who …” subgenre, a surprisingly large range of books whose titles start with the words “Women Who …” and end with a character flaw that then blames us for our own failure to be happy or successful. “Women Who Love Too Much,” “Women Who Think Too Much,” “Women Who Worry Too Much,” “Women Who Do Too Much.”

Rarely do we stop to consider that many of life’s problems might be better explained by the alternative titles “Men Who Love Too Little,” “ … Think Too Little,” “ … Worry Too Little” or “ … Do Too Little.” But instead we assume without question that whatever men are doing or thinking is what we all should be aiming for.

Do you have a problem? That’s your call. But if you decide that you have a problem, which you are entirely entitled to do, it’s also your responsibility to address it. How you do so is entirely up to you, whether you prefer to pull out the nail or talk about your feelings about the nail. But if your problem is that you can’t jump as high as a man, the solution to your problem will never be to demand that men jump lower.

I’ve been aware of the apology gap for a while, and so almost every Friday for the past few years, I’ve offered my Friday Apologia. It begins with “I apologize to everyone I offended this week. You’re awesome! hugs.” It then goes to some peculiarity of the week. It’s fun to see who responds and how. Some people even doubt my sincerity. Can you imagine?

Whether women suffer from an apology gap seems to be more of a personal problem than a gender problem. Women I know don’t seem to suffer from it, or have much of a problem speaking their minds whenever they feel like it. If Whippman does, as would appear from her obsession, then she has two choices. She can stop doing it or she can persist in whining about it to no avail.

What she, nor any white knight ally who would come to the rescue of this damsel in distress, cannot do is tell men to apologize more to make her feel less like of an apology-failure about it. Man or woman, we get to decide for ourselves how to act. If Whippman doesn’t have the grit to face her own issues and deal with them, it’s not my problem. Sorry, Ruth. Actually, not sorry.

15 thoughts on “The Gender Apology Gap

  1. Grant Ellis

    With apologies to My Fair Lady:

    Why can’t a []man be more like a [wo]man?
    [Wo]Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
    Eternally noble, historically fair.
    Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
    Why can’t a []man — be like that?

  2. DaveL

    There’s even a Gmail plug-in that is supposed to help us quit this apparently self-destructive habit by policing our emails for signs of excessive contrition, underlining anything of an overly apologetic nature in angry red wiggles.

    I just wanted to be the first to call out Ruth Whippman for calling out an application designed to call women out for calling themselves out too much. I’m tempted to say she ought to be sorry for it, but that might constitute overthinking the matter.

  3. Cynthia Taylor

    There isnt too much apologizing there is too little. People don’t say they are sorry anymore and that has contributed to our civil decline. People make mistakes. It’s ok to say your sorry. It goes along way.

    1. SHG Post author

      Do you apologize too seldom, or do you apologize when you think you’ve done something for which an apology is due? Is that your choice or the choice of the mob demanding you apologize because they’ve deemed you wrong, and so wrong you must be?

      I apologize all the time, but only when I think I’ve made a mistake. This may seem too seldom to those who think I’m wrong when I disagree, so do I apologize too much, too little or exactly the right amount?

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