On the other hand…

Earlier today I linked enthusiastically to Deborah Cameron’s post on the Just Not Sorry app.  But just now I’ve read Helen De Cruz’s post, in which she discusses the advice she gives younger women as a mentor, on their cover letters.

In such materials, whenever I see hedging or phrases that could be seen as self-undermining, e.g., candidates professing a love and passion for teaching, mentioning how fortunate they were being a graduate student under X, how honored they would be to be part of institution Y, I mark such phrases and encourage deletion. Women are not the only ones who write such phrases, but I am vigilant about them especially, given that women already are less likely to than men to be described as outstanding candidates in letters of recommendation, and more likely to be described as ‘hard-working’. When candidates unwittingly enforce such stereotypes through their self-descriptions, it would seem important to alert them to this.

And I realised that I do the same thing, especially in preparing students (both male and female) for their job interviews.  I spend quite a lot of effort helping them to sound more confident and less hesitant.  And I remain firmly convinced that this is right.

So at the end of the day (literally) I find myself thinking that a more nuanced view is needed here.  The app is, as Cameron says, terrible: it is wildly overgeneralising about the functions that words like ‘sorry’ play, which in fact vary from context to context. And it sends a damaging message that women are especially defective in their speech.  But in the right circumstances, it can certainly be helpful to urge people to sound less hesitant.  And, our culture being what it is, women will probably need this advice more often than men do.

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