On Being "The Polite Little Girl in the Room"

Do you work really hard and always say yes? That might be what's holding you back.

Oct 5, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

Yesterday I was in a meeting when someone pitched an idea for a video I didn’t think would work. “Frankly,” I said, “It sounds kind of boring.” 

“Well [so and so] didn’t think so,” my male colleague retorted.

From there, the meeting went downhill. It was apparent to all involved that my comment annoyed him. His remarks toward me immediately became condescending and exasperated. “You don’t get it,” he implied. Which is weird because I’m actually a freelance consultant hired specifically because I do get it.

This colleague is actually someone I’ve worked with in several capacities for almost four years. I know he respects me and my work and, additionally, considers me a friend. But in that moment, when I “pushed back” (oh office speak) against his idea in such a blunt manner, he didn’t like it. I don’t know if he felt threatened, offended or what; I have no way of getting inside his head. I suspect, however, that it was the manner in which I presented my feedback. Un-ladylike. Harsh. Not at all like “the polite little girl” he expected.

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A different colleague and me at a work party. My expression: it is priceless.

My concentration in graduate school was creative nonfiction writing. However, we were required to take two writing workshops outside of our genre. I took screenwriting and fiction. (I avoided poetry solely because I didn’t want to destroy my GPA. Seriously.) My fiction workshop was taught by Clyde Edgerton. Most of the other writers in the class had fiction concentrations. I felt like a fraud. Even though I read fiction voraciously, making up stories is not my forte. “And then she woke up,” I once ended a story I wrote in third grade, something to this day I’m still cringe about.

So when it came time for me to speak in the fiction workshop, I was apologetic. “I probably don’t even know what I’m talking about,” I’d say -- and then make my point. Apparently, I did this in a lot of classes. Once after I presented on Mary McCarthy in a Forms class, my professor pulled me aside and said, “I didn't even know you were capable of being that confident and articulate. I’m really impressed.” My fiction professor was one of three professors to judge my MFA Thesis Exam and the only comment I remember of his now was, “I wish Daisy had shown this kind of conviction in my fiction workshop.” It was a backhanded compliment, albeit it a sincere one. It crushed me. I hadn’t realized how I was coming across.

Couching my words and prefacing my thoughts was something I’d unknowingly become an expert at, I realized. After all, I reasoned, if I start with “This might be stupid” and then it is, I’ve covered my basis. And if it’s not, then great. My idea has been heard.

Joan Williams, founding director for WorkLife Law and a law professor, wrote a piece for Huffington Post a few days ago where she addressed this phenomenon. “The Polite Little Girl” or “Dutiful Daughter” phenomenon. And there’s a reason it’s “girl” and “daughter,” not “boy” and “son.” Because the qualities that make up this phenomenon are, you guessed it: most often found in women.

As always, I recommend you read the piece in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt to give you an idea:

Women often are faulted for being too timid. "They internalize every freaking thing," said the consultant. "And so, they're afraid to do something that they're not perfect at." Women tend to wait until they can do something perfectly, whereas men figure, "I'm 65 percent there, so I can wing it."

Which approach is right?

Men's and women's different approaches each make sense in context. Their approaches are different because men and women are in very different situations.

Women's mistakes tend to be noticed more and remembered longer. "When I came up for partner, a mistake I made in the second year was held against me. The fact that I learned from my mistake, and that men had made similar mistakes -- none of that mattered," said one lawyer.

Women's mistakes are literally riskier: "A man takes a big risk and makes a mistake, that's considered risky, but he's taking a chance; a woman does it, then it's just a big mistake," said one woman in a focus group of professors.

Women often are berated for their lack of confidence. But their timidity stems from their sense of having more to lose -- which they often do. Saying that women don't get ahead because they lack confidence is a good example of using past discrimination to justify future discrimination.

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Once I was asked to handle my group's calendar. This was the result. I was never asked again.

Is any of this fair? No. Is it disheartening? Yes. But as with all sexism, unless we work to change it, it will always never change.  Of course, that's far easier said than done, as confidence isn’t a characteristic that comes easily to a lot of us. Especially when we’ve spent our entire lives pretending to be otherwise. Like this moment from eighth grade that I’ll never forget:

I was kissing a boy I’d previously “gone out with,” but whom I’d broken up with when he cheated on me with another girl in my class with bigger boobs, longer hair and an inclination for blow jobs. She was long gone though, so there the boy and I were, lying on my best friend’s little sister’s bed with his hand on my boob (over the bra, of course). 

“This question might seem redundant…” he started when we came up for air.

And I knew exactly what he was about to say. That he was going to ask me to go out with him again. But I was nervous and shy and uncomfortable, so instead of just letting him finish, I blurted out, “What does redundant mean?”

What does redundant mean? Seriously, Daisy? You’re at the top of your class, going to one of the best high schools in the country next fall, and an avid reader. “WHAT DOES REDUNDANT MEAN?”

But I was awkward and timid. So I faked dumb. I faked insecure. I faked being meek.

The boy laughed and then explained redundant to me. My stupidity made him feel smart. Superior. Important. Then he asked me out and I said yes. Intellect was clearly not a huge priority for him; blonde hair and blue eyes, however, were.

Perhaps that example doesn’t fully work in this context, but I think it’s a (albeit pathetic) glimpse as to how we’re conditioned even as young women. We don’t speak up. We hesitate. We do what’s necessary to reward men in power roles by being “the polite girl in the room.” 

Of course, not all women are like this. And none of us are like this all of the time. But the fact of the matter is there are more men in executive roles at companies partly because they truly don’t give a shit if they screw up once in a while on the way to the top. And I wish that more of us would take a cue from them in that regard.

If we want something a man has, we might have to take a risk that makes us uncomfortable. But as they say: no risk, no reward. It’s up to us to challenge ourselves and ask for more responsibility, speak up loudly and with conviction, and to believe and behave like that we deserve everything that men already have. Because we do.

After the meeting yesterday ended, I questioned the way I handled disagreeing with my colleague’s idea. “I shouldn’t have said it was boring,” I lamented. “I should have been more delicate with my phrasing.” But you know what? That’s bullshit. Why should I have to pussyfoot around my point? I respect my colleagues too much to pander to them and they should respect me for being straightforward. I wasn’t being rude, I realized. I was being blunt. I thought the idea was boring and wasn’t going to work. So I said so. If a man had said the exact same thing, would he have reacted the same way? No. Because that’s just how men are. And how they’re expected to be.

And ultimately: I was right. We’re no longer going with his idea. I can’t help but wonder if I hadn’t been so forceful, if perhaps my point would have been lost. If the right decision for the client wouldn’t have been made. After all, it’s not about hurt feelings. It’s about getting the job done. Even typing that, however, is hard for me. But it’s what a man would say, I’m telling myself. And though I believe in kindness always, I also believe in being heard. Yes, it’s possible to do both, but you know what they say about nice guys.