By: Dr. Denise Renye
You’ve likely heard women apologize, profusely. Studies confirm that’s true. And apologizing happens to such a degree that women will say “I’m sorry” even when they’re not at fault. They’ll apologize when a stranger bumps into them and even say “I’m sorry” to inanimate objects. Satirical website The Onion references this in a post called “Area Woman Said ‘Sorry’ 118 Times Yesterday.”
What gets less attention are the other phrases women say frequently which are, “Do you know what I mean?” “Does that make sense?” “Is that weird?” Women are groomed to justify themselves and perpetually check in to make sure they’re understood.
Psychologist and Harvard University professor Carol Gilligan has been studying girls' behavior since the early 80s, and she found when girls hit puberty, their self-esteem plummets because they’re scared they’ll lose their friends if they express their opinions. Also, girls are encouraged to have relationships, which means they tend to value what other people think and feel. At times, that may mean they value other people’s opinions more than their own thoughts and feelings. This translates into constantly checking in with the people around them. And when they check in with others around them frequently enough, they may begin to lose touch with their inner knowing.
I witness this behavior with my business or executive coaching clients. In male-dominated fields such as tech and construction management, the women say, “Do you know what I mean? “Does that make sense?” often. They may not feel confident or secure in their environment and “soften” their statements by asking these questions. How does this happen, especially when you take into account girls and women are doing better than boys and men in academia?
In 2018, about 88% of girls graduated on time, compared with 82% of boys, according to the Brookings Institute. And in 2020, women made up 60% of college students while men accounted for only 40%, according to statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse. College enrollment in the United States has declined by 1.5 million students over the past five years, with men accounting for 71% of that drop.
Why is it that girls and women are crushing it in school but becoming less confident when they enter the workforce? What I see happening is women experience mansplaining and are gaslit. Some people use that word without really understanding what it means, so to be clear, gaslighting is a specific type of psychological manipulation wherein one person lies to another about something to indicate the other person is not mentally stable enough to “correctly” remember what “actually” happened.
Gaslighting is not always intentional. Sometimes it’s unconscious because it doesn’t feel safe to acknowledge reality. Someone may have grown up in a family wherein gaslighting was the norm, so it either becomes second nature to do or second nature to receive. You can gaslight yourself even. When women enter the workforce, things may change for them. Whereas before they had a clear sense of reality, the people around them state another reality. For instance, “Donny wasn’t sexually harassing you. He’s just friendly!” or “You didn’t get assigned that project because you’re a woman. It’s because you’re better at organizing.”
What the woman knows to be true is explicitly denied, and when this happens over and over again, women start to feel unmoored. They check in with others to get a sense of shared reality: “Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean?” When her inner compass is no longer validated, she must seek out external reassurance. To be clear, anyone, no matter where they fall on the gender continuum, can be gaslit. But more often than not, women reflect the recurrent gaslighting they experience in their speech. In a patriarchal society, or one that gives men power and takes power away from women, nonbinary folx, and “girly” men, numerous things don’t make sense. As a coping strategy, women may “reality test” to confirm their point of view.
If you find yourself regularly saying, “Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean? Is that weird?” let me tell you: Yes. It does make sense. I do know what you mean. And no, it’s not weird.
Brueningsen, Christopher. “Boys in crisis: Schools are failing young males. Here's what needs to change in classrooms.” USA Today. October 9, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story...
Deseret News. “Fear of speaking out is holding girls back.” Deseret News. July 5, 1997. https://www.deseret.com/1997/7...
Schumann, Karen; Ross, Michael. "Why Women Apologize More than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior.” Psychological Science. November 2010; Vol. 21: 11, pp. 1649-1655. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4...
Unknown. “Area Woman Said ‘Sorry’ 118 Times Yesterday.” The Onion. January 30, 2014. https://www.theonion.com/biden...