Author and journalist Alina Tugend explores the complicated reasons why women might be reluctant to apologize
We witnessed something unusual last week – a public apology by a woman. I’m talking about Vivian Schiller, the president of National Public Radio. Of course, she was apologizing for the actions of a man, her head fundraiser Rob Schiller. He made some, well, inopportune remarks about conservatives and questioning whether NPR needs federal funding. And both Schillers (no relation to each other) ended up resigning.
Nonetheless, a public apology by a woman is noteworthy, if only because it is so rare. Search for famous apologies and up come Tiger Woods, David Letterman, Don Imus, Bill Clinton and all the other men who have had to “I’m sorry” for their bad behavior over the years.
Now, a lot of this is, of course, because far more men are in prominent positions than women. So odds are, if a famous person is going to do something stupid, it’s going to be a man. Especially if it involves some sort of sexual misconduct, which seems to be what a high percentage of theses mea culpas are for.
But there are other reasons. Many women, even highly successful ones, know they are judged more harshly for their mistakes than men and therefore are more reluctant to take risks than their male counterparts. Fewer risk, therefore fewer mistakes. And fewer apologies.
And while fewer mistakes may sound good – no one wants a worker who makes careless and frequent errors – the reality is that there’s a downside to that caution. We also make mistakes when we’re trying something new, challenging ourselves and thinking creatively. When we’re stepping outside our safe boundaries. If we fear screwing up too much, we’ll never take the chance needed to accomplish something great.
Of course, we can all name women who are unbelievably successful – from Hillary Clinton and Oprah on down – who seem to have no trouble asserting themselves as well or better than any man. But it’s surprising what research has shown us about how difficult it still is for women to demonstrate their knowledge and competence as firmly and fully as men.
Social science shows us why this might be. In one study, 59 men and 59 women undergraduates were set up in pairs, half with the same-sex partners and half with opposite-sex partners. The two partners disagreed with each other on two topics: “The drinking age should be lowered to eighteen in Massachusetts” (the state they lived in) and “The federal government should provide free day care for working parents.” It turned out that women spoke more tentatively when interacting with men than when interacting with women. And that proved to be more useful in convincing a man of her argument.
Well, men were more influenced by women who spoke cautiously than by those who spoke assertively. But women were more influenced by a woman who was more forceful rather than timid.
Now that study is from 1990. Hasn’t a lot changed over the past two decades or so? Of course it has, but maybe not as much as we think.
A 2004 experiment found that women are much less likely to be viewed as experts than men — even when they have the requisite knowledge. In an experiment, 143 undergraduate business students completed a questionnaire in which they had to rank twelve items based on their importance in surviving an Australian bushfire. The researchers found that not only were women’s opinions more often disregarded than men’s, but women who had no particular know-how in the arena were viewed more favorably than women with greater capability — because the women without expertise tended to go along with the status quo, rather than challenge it.
And women tended to evaluate themselves more negatively than men, even when their performances were equal. “It is not actual expertise but perceived expertise that conveys power and status,” the researchers said.
So what can we do about how we’re perceived – especially if, ironically, the more insecure we appear, the more seriously we might be taken?
Change, as we know, isn’t easy and takes time. A little humility is a good thing. But one thing we can all focus on is to be less self-deprecating and timid when asserting ourselves, particularly in situations where we’re knowledgeable.
In the short run, as the research shows us, some men may react more negatively to women who come across as self-assured. But there is no time like the present to change this pattern.
Editor’s Note: Alina Tugend is the author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. She has written about education, environmental issues, and consumer culture for numerous publications including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Child and Parents among others. Since 2005, she has written the bi-weekly consumer column “ShortCuts” for the New York Times business section.