Please Don't Be Sorry

The Covid-19 Inquiry is proving to be more revealatory than expected. Most of us knew the Johnson government was incapable of governing properly. Seeing it laid out in forensic detail is showing it was even worse than imagined. I don't mean the parties, inexcusable though they were. I mean the sheer incompetence and belief in their own bluster that piled bad decision on crass stupidity.

But as in any large organization, in amongst the awfulness, there are a few people who tried hard to do the right thing. One such was (then) Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara. Well, OK, she erred too, being the person who provided the karaoke machine for one of the illegal Downing Street parties, for which she was rightly fined. But I want to focus on her email to two senior NHS staff. When this first came to light it was assumed that 'Simon' was Sir Simon Stevens the head of the NHS in England but this wasn't the case.

Hi Simon and Mary, Just when you thought you were out of the woods on annoying emails from me … Has the PPE conversation picked up the fact that most PPE isn't designed for female bodies and yet the overwhelming majority people who need PPE are women (77% of NHS staff are female, 89% of nurses and 84% of careworkers). There has been quite a bit of commentary on this. To state the bleedin obvious, women's bodies are different and particularly face shape with masks. If you need more on this let me know! But would [be] reassuring to know that it is being taken into account in this new supply.

I didn't know who to annoy with this so I chose you. But by all means tell me where to better direct my questioning.
Email from Helen MacNamara to two senior NHS staff. Sent 15 April 2020, 22:57

The Deputy Cabinet Secretary has very few bosses. There's the actual Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister and other elected ministers, arguably the monarch, and maybe one or two others. Below her in the hierarchy falls every other public employee, including everyone in the NHS - even its director. Her email was to senior people, sure, but the recipient, Simon Ridley, was technically her subordinate. And yet, and yet, she's apologising for asking a question.

Head shot of Helen MacNamara

Imagine the Deputy Cabinet Secretary had been a man. Would the email begin with Just when you thought you were out of the woods on annoying emails from me …? Maybe. I have begun emails in similar vein. But would it have gone on Has the PPE conversation picked up the fact that …? I suspect a man would have written something more like "has it occurred to you or anyone else that..." There has been quite a bit of commentary on this would perhaps have been more like "Even you can't have missed this, it's been all over the news" or whatever.

Now imagine that the recipient wasn't Simon and Mary but Simona and Mary. I suggest the email would more likely have been "FFS you two have you any idea how useless all that PPE is?"

I admit I didn't immediately pick up on this when I saw the email. It took an edition of James O'Brien's show on LBC to educate me. Like me, he had to have it pointed out to him but the callers he had that day made it plain that it is women's every day experience that they feel compelled to be demur, to feel that they mustn't speak too loudly, that they mustn't be too confident.

My experience

I spend a lot of my time at work explaining some of the detail about aspects of Web technology. It's an area in which I'm the in-house specialist in a very specific niche. Some of my explanations end up as YouTube videos, which gives me visibility within the organisation, and, well, I'm a naturally confident, native English speaking, white, late middle-aged male. I don't know what it is in that mix but it is very common for female colleagues to preface their every question with an apology. "Sorry to ask such stupid questions but …". Gah!

Highly accomplished women in senior, responsible positions who know far more than me about their areas apologising for asking me a question when it is literally my job to help whoever he or she may be in the area I cover. The male colleagues almost never do of course. They're much more likely to say "I don't get that, you said X but I thought Y".

Please don't apologise. If my demeanor or behaviour is such that I make you feel you have to apologise, tell me. It would very much be me that would be in the wrong, not you.

On this theme, here's an excellent poem doing the rounds at the moment (I saw it on LinkedIn)


She sat at the back
and they said she was shy,
She led from the front
and they hated her pride.

They asked her advice
and then questioned her guidance,
They branded her loud
then were shocked by her silence,

When she shared no ambition
they said it was sad,
So she told them her dreams
and they said she was mad,

They told her they’d listen
then covered their ears,
And gave her a hug while
they laughed at her fears,

And she listened to all of it
thinking she should,
Be the girl they told her to be
best as she could,

But one day she asked
what was best for herself,
Instead of trying
to please everyone else,

So she walked to the forest
and stood with the trees,
She heard the wind whisper
and dance with the leaves,

She spoke to the willow,
the elm and the pine,
And she told them what she’d
been told time after time,

She told them she felt
she was never enough,
She was either too little
or far far too much,

Too loud or too quiet,
too fierce or too weak,
Too wise or too foolish,
too bold or too meek,

Then she found a small clearing
surrounded by firs,
And she stopped…and she heard
what the trees said to her,

And she sat there for hours
not wanting to leave,
For the forest said nothing
it just let her breathe.

Becky Hemsley