Nora Ephron’s name was all over the news after her untimely death in June.
The writer and filmmaker left us so many great movies, books, and quotes, but perhaps most of all she left professional women the legacy of a smart woman who was unapologetically fearless and funny.
One key lesson we can learn from Nora Ephron is to stop apologizing for who we are.
Apologies don’t need to employ words such as “I’m sorry” or “please forgive me.”
The apologizing mindset can be far more subtle, but also far more insidious.
Here are three things we should stop apologizing for:
1. Being smart.
One thing that underlies most of the apologies I have heard from women’s lips— including my own—is some variation on “forgive me for sounding too intelligent.”
Women tend to minimize their own contributions, which is at odds with the image of a confident professional woman that they want to portray. They end up being taken less seriously.
My coaching client, Allison, was a capable executive who had made her way up the ladder in a very sexist industry. Through hard work and sheer doggedness, she advanced to the executive ranks. Yet when her boss asked if she’d like to be considered for a senior vice president role, she demurred, saying: “Do you think I’ve got the intellectual firepower for that job? The other SVPs are so smart.”
While not worded as an outright apology, Allison’s meaning was clear: “I don’t think I’m smart enough, do you?”
My advice was that when offered a promotion in the future, she should say yes and shut up—no qualifications!
2. Being successful.
A remarkable woman I know was promoted to president of a major business unit of a Fortune 50 company. When I congratulated her on this career milestone, she brushed aside my praise with an apologetic, “It’s the same job I had before, only with a different title.”
To which I responded” “Most men wouldn’t apologize for a promotion to the job of president. If you can’t own this success for yourself, then own it for all the other women who look up to you and emulate you.”
3. Being powerful.
I worked with a female Fortune 1000 CEO to prepare her résumé. This is a woman with a truly amazing record of achievement, yet she halted our efforts at brainstorming accomplishments a few hours into the process. She sheepishly admitted that she felt uncomfortable with the accomplishment-generation process.
I asked why, to which she replied, “Because I produced these accomplishments with my team, not alone.”
My response: “Do you honestly think that anyone reading the résumé of a Fortune 100 CEO thinks that any of their accomplishments are single-handed?”
Thinking back, I realize that I have had the same conversation many times over the years with female clients, but never with male clients.
How can we eradicate this apologizing mindset and behavior?
The first step is through self awareness. The second step is by being confident in your abilities and knowing your worth.
Let me propose how professional women can help each other: Establish a zero-tolerance-apology pact with your female friends and colleagues:
• Agree that you will let each other know when you observe apologetic behavior or words.
• Establish a code signal to head the behavior or words off before they are complete or immediately after.
• Debrief as soon as possible and learn from each other.
Nora Ephron showed us through both her characters and her life that smart girls finish first. Let’s live up to her example—and quit apologizing for it!
Catherine McManus is senior vice president of digital partnerships, content and social, at Citibank. This story first appeared on Citi’s Women & Co., a go-to personal finance source for women. By providing financial content, commentary, and community, Women & Co.’s mission is to get women thinking and talking about personal finance.