I want to apologize to all women everywhere
- Written by Tom Broad
Did you hear about the presidential candidate who got into trouble when he (well, I guess that narrows it down) called a female reporter “sweetie?” Boy, did that bring back 30-year-old bad memories of when I almost derailed my career before it got started. Like that presidential candidate, I should have known better. I’d been a reporter and then-managing editor of a group of suburban weeklies – just like The Tribune. Fresh out of Journalism School, I was ready to change the world, just like all those kids today who are graduating from college. Like me, oh so many years ago, they want to set the world straight – not set it on fire. From those newspaper jobs, I went right into state government and, wouldn’t you know, that’s where I got myself into trouble. I was what was then called a public information officer for the State Health Department. Maybe the flush of youth has clouded my memories, but I think it was just about the best job I ever had. I was bringing health care to people who couldn’t afford it. I was setting up county health departments throughout the state. I was traveling to far-out hamlets to bring inoculations to people who couldn’t afford them. OK, I wasn’t doing it all by myself, but I was part of a team that was doing all those things. The ‘70s just couldn’t have been any better for me. Even those dull, never-ending logistics meetings were exciting – and that’s where I got into trouble. At one of those never-ending meetings, somebody asked about making copies of what we were talking about. All I said was, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll have one of the girls in the office make copies.” A week later, my boss, a 30-year government employee, told me I’d offended a whole room full of people with my insensitive remarks. From the look on my face, old Franklin Delano (those really were his first and middle names) could tell I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained. My transgression was calling mature women “girls,” an insult to the women in the room, the women in the office and all women in the world. He didn’t have to tell me who was complaining. I’m not sure Franklin even knew. I’d heard that the complaint had gone all the way to the Governor’s office! Boy was I in trouble! That was 30-some years ago. I’ve forgotten the exact details of my “hearing.” I remember going before a group of my peers, all longtime government employees who, I swear, were wondering what they were doing there questioning me. I’d tried to get my defense together in my head but, when I got into that room with all those peers, I looked at everybody and apologized. One of the women in the group asked me how I would have handled it if I’d been offended by what someone had said. I told her I would have confronted the person immediately. Put them on the spot. Asked them why they said that. Tried to show them how offensive it sounded because, if that person were like me, they didn’t know what personal harm they’d caused. That answer saved my job. It didn’t hurt that my peers took pity on a skinny 23-year-old kid from the Nebraska Sand Hills who looked like he was 16. It taught me a valuable lesson about looking at each person as unique and as an individual. Ten years later, a male friend of mine told me he was in trouble at work because he’d called one of the female employees in his bank “sweetheart.” “I wasn’t insulting her,” he said. “It’s a Southern thing, a term we use to describe women.” “We’re in Johnson County, Kansas,” I told him. “That’s not the South. Do what I did. Apologize. Don’t try to explain it. Just tell that employee and whoever else is in there with you that you’ll never do it again – and then mean it!” He did. He survived and, like me, learned a valuable lesson: We’ll never be able to run for office because somewhere, somehow, someday, somebody will remember how we both insulted the women in our offices. It’s the kind of story that political journalists live for.