I am a member of an equal rights advocacy group within my company. We discuss equality issues in the workplace (woman's rights, LGBT issues, equal pay, disabilities concerns, etc) and work with management to ensure our company creates a non-hostile environment and is an equal opportunity employer. I've always been a huge advocate for full equality in the workplace.

Recently, I learned that our company had special designated areas called "New Mom's Rooms". Seeing that as being not equal, I presented to the group that we should create a "New Dad's Room". My rationale was that fathers are just as important to raising children, and they should be equally entitled to a safe space to recover from the stress of having children. I said it was not fair that a new father had to endure sleepless nights, while a new mother could come into the office and unwind and nap whenever she needed. I also brought up the great disparity in our company between paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave.

It wasn't until after I gave my presentation that somebody pulled me aside and explained the "New Mom's Room" was intended for breast feeding women to be able to have privacy while pumping. That instantly made sense to me, and I was immediately horrified when I realized the extent of my incredibly stupid and (possibly offensive) presentation.

That was 3 weeks ago. The group has largely ignored my presentation, and hasn't brought it up again. I'm extremely embarrassed and would like to move on, but I also realize that I probably owe the group an apology. (The CFO was also in attendance, which makes it even more awkward).

What is the best way to approach this situation and apologize, while not drawing attention to my embarrassment? Or is it best just to let it go and pretend like it never happened?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Sep 10 at 12:59
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    Note: I've copied the existing comments to chat, but please keep comments on this question on-topic in terms of requesting and supplying clarifications, not about passing judgement. Thanks! – Snow Sep 10 at 13:02
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    After you were pulled aside and told about the new room, did you instantly apologized to the group at large? It's unclear if everyone walked out and it was too late. – Dan Sep 10 at 15:47
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    @Dan Based on the details, I think it is safe to say that OP did not or was not able to make any attempts to rectify the situation in a timely manner. As it stands, the situation happened 3 weeks ago and is haunting OP. – MonkeyZeus Sep 10 at 16:02
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13 Answers 13

I think sometimes people do get carried away with "equality" issues and forget that we are NOT made equal (genetically) and some differences cannot be compared. Your experience is perfect example of that.

My answer probably would be the obvious one:

Send an email to all the attendees, your manager and anyone in your team (or outside) you think may have been offended and apologise. Start with an apology first and then explain why you assumed what you assumed. Do not try to overshadow apology with your justification and do not try to defend yourself. Own your mistake fair and square. So avoid "buts" and "ifs" in the tone. For example, AVOID

"I am sorry but they should have made it clear"

or

"I am sorry if I have offended someone"

Instead something like

I am sorry for my inappropriate presentation. I completely misunderstood the usage and it was wrong of me to invite everyone to hear me out without doing enough background work. I am embarrassed by this mistake and will work hard to learn from it and avoid such mistake in future.

(Of course, you may have better choice of words!)

Finally, do not beat yourself up for it. It takes a lot of courage to accept your mistake and think about how to rectify it. People will eventually forget about it. People generally are too busy to hold onto something like this for too long.

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    This is a good answer for the next day, but three weeks later? Tough one – rath Sep 10 at 9:24
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    This is a very nice answer (+1), though I do not believe that OP's presentation was "inappropriate" (sorry if my understanding of this word is incorrect, I am not a native speaker of English). Inappropriate would be if he offended someone, not if he completely missed the point and wanted to bring in the problem of equality in the lack of sleep these monsters induce (I have two children so I can relate) – WoJ Sep 10 at 13:01
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    @WoJ He very well could have had the right intentions as you mentioned. The fault according to me was OP did not to do enough ground work before calling a meeting and preparing presentation. While lot of comments and answers are about breast feeding and babies itself, I think it is just about some one making a mistake and accepting they were wrong irrespective of what the mistake is. – PagMax Sep 10 at 13:48
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    @rath "My presentation from a few weeks ago has been weighing on my mind. I wasn't initially sure how to approach an apology, so I hope that a delayed apology is better than none." – Ryan Sep 10 at 18:31
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    Stating this apology in person during the next "equality" meeting might be more appropriate than an email, given how late it is. "Before we all adjourn, I'd like to apologize for my presentation three weeks ago. I should have looked into the purpose of the room before calling a meeting about it. My presentation was inappropriate and I will do better in the future" – WetlabStudent Sep 12 at 2:57

The question doesn't explicitly ask for "what could I have done better", although it's probably part of an answer. So I'll start there, going back to your original knowledge, to try and outline the things you could have done instead, before looking at what to do now.

Mainly because you need to understand your problem, before trying to fix it. Indeed, your problem happened because you didn't try to understand a problem (as others might see it, or at all) before trying to fix it. So this is an important mistake to avoid when you try to put it right.

The "new mums" space

You just learned there was a new mothers' space. You reacted "let's create a new dads space as well". Hmm. Do you really think parents should be divided by gender? Did you ask what led to the space for mothers being created, or how it is used, or its purpose?

So your first mistake was to jump in, rather than ask, learn, and check things first.

(As an aside this can be seen as rather "entitled" behaviour, especially as it doesn't sound like you are a new mother and you are discovering the room for the first time, yet you automatically assume you know what's best for those involved - a group you aren't part of and may have needs you don't know about.)

Linear thinking, and probing to open up the concern

A second mistake was to apply fairly linear thinking. There is a new mums room? So there should be a new dads room too! Yay for logic! But what, exactly, would have been the real benefit of a segregated room of this kind, even if not rejected by others?

A better direction would have been to inquire and discover, were any people with new babies being excluded, by having the room only for new mums, rather than a space for new parents generally or a young babies and carers space. You would have discovered whether new dads had needs, or been overlooked, and also whether anyone else with very young children would benefit from support.

You would have started to pivot towards gender and assumption-free wording, and to the function of the room rather than assumoptions about who needs a space and how they are categorised.

As it happens, you would also have learned the fact that it was used for breast feeding privacy if you had done so.

Exploring issues in the current setup

Your next mistake was to see the matter too superficially. Suppose you had asked these things, and learned it was a way to provide breastfeeding parents with privacy. You might consider if this is the same issue, or a different issue.

For example, you probe whether a new parents space might be better as it's less assumptive, and are told that actually, breastfeeders want a male-presenting free space for privacy, and that's the underlying purpose of the room, so having a "new parents" space wouldn't work.

This might spark a thought, what if a new mother wanted privacy from other new mothers (not unreasonable with work colleagues)? Should we provide a new parents space with a few drawable curtains or cubicles, or some other means, so that mums who are breastfeeding can have privacy? Do we even know how new mums think about this area and if it does what they need?

What to do now?

As you can see, equality type work is immensely valuable, but requires a different approach from much work. You can't assume you are the one with the answers. You can't assume you are the one entitled to speak first and solve problems. You need to learn listening and reflecting skills. As in science, the most valuable thing is a person who can ask good questions. You need to learn that.

It may be that this role isn't for you. If so, quietly stand down from it.

Otherwise, be up front about the error. Why? Because people will judge an excuse far harsher than honesty. "I'm new and clearly have a lot to learn. I hope to ask more and assume less, going forward, and hope you can accept my sincere apologies for jumping in without thinking through, at the last meeting."

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    Exactly. This seems like a reasonable thing for an equal rights advocate to notice and question, but it should never have gotten as far as a presentation. It should have gotten as far as speaking to whoever is responsible for creating the space, with the entire thing being a simple email or water cooler conversation along the "Hey, this new mums room - why New Mums rather than New Parents?" "Oh, it's to give privacy to breastfeeding mothers who need to use a pump at work" "Great, that makes sense." – timbstoke Sep 10 at 13:24
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    I appreciate that maybe the OP's post was changed after this answer was written (?), but it seems to answer a different question. The question now asks "Recovering from an embarassing misunderstanding..." not "Avoiding an embarassing misunderstanding..." – AnoE Sep 14 at 7:58

I would probably just move on. At worst you look a bit silly and have embarrassed yourself - highlighting this again 3 weeks later as a formal apology probably isn’t going to help.

It doesn’t seem like you have done anything outrageous here. It seems unlikely you would have caused offence. I'm not sure a formal apology is even necessary.

CFOs and senior management have difficult conversations with staff all the time. If someone in the meeting was upset, they could have challenged you in or shortly after the meeting.

Whilst the whole bit about the room is vaguely amusing, it sounds like you raised several other valid points; disparity between maternity and paternity, lack of a room for staff to rest in.

A presentation is a way to present ideas. You now have some feedback. If you feel the need you could make a second presentation or a short verbal statement at the next meeting. Something to the effect of; "I misunderstood what the moms room was for - that must have seemed a bit odd to you all. However, I still feel my points X, Y, and Z are worthy of further discussion".

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    I disagree with this. A situation such as OP's is likely to stick in the minds of everyone who watched that presentation, particularly if OP is new(ish) to the role and doesn't have an established reputation. Apologising for their mistake is absolutely the best option at this point. – Korthalion Sep 10 at 9:32
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    @Korthalion I'd say maybe that's true for the few days after, but 3 weeks? If I'm still dwelling on a misunderstanding of something 3 weeks later.....there's something else at play. – Anoplexian Sep 10 at 15:06
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    @Korthalion - "A situation such as OP's is likely to stick in the minds of everyone" - As it should. Sometimes, the best thing we can learn from our mistakes is to alter our own behavior, rather than trying to clear our reputations. OP should take a back seat on all these kinds of issues for the immediate future, and not bring attention to themselves. – Graham Sep 10 at 20:45
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    @Graham I'm sorry but that's an immature way of dealing with the situation. If OP ever wants anyone who viewed that presentation to respect them again (with regards to equality issues), then OP needs to show that they know they made a mistake. Simply hiding from the fact and hoping people forget is NOT the best course of action. – Korthalion Sep 11 at 8:47
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    @Anoplexian That's a fair point, the email/talk would have to be worded well to avoid that sort of embarrassment. – Korthalion Sep 11 at 8:48

Let's get down to the cause of this situation:

You obviously did not inform yourself what the room is for at all. You assumed something and based on that, blindly started protesting.

As you know now, your assumption was completely wrong and that back fired. As you are an advocate, I would expect that before you "open a case", you inform yourself in detail about the subject. You did not. Therefore is pretty much natural and righteous that you feel embarrassed. This should help you to avoid another situation like that.

The only thing you can do is to apologize and try not to do this mistake again. Inform yourself before protesting. Take it as a life lesson.

This ,imho, is actual one of the biggest problem we currently have in the west. People protest based on gossip and assumption instead of facts. Don't be one of them.

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    Doesn't answer the question except "The only thing you can do is to apologize", and looking at the other answers we see there are more options than apologize. – LVDV Sep 10 at 11:58
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    That's because you can't really recover from this, except not doing it again, imho – Herr Derb Sep 10 at 12:17
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    @Agent_L "Ever" is a long time. People move on, memories fade, new people join. It's certainly true that OP has made a fool of themselves, but that doesn't mean it can't be recovered from. – Tim B Sep 11 at 12:23
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    @ch7kor I'm not sure there's anyone on a "privileged" side here, whatever that means to you... OP appears to have, as some might describe, gone full SJW on an issue without being informed, and ended up running against the brick wall of objective reality. To OP's defense, a "Breastfeeding Room" would've been a better name for the room, but it doesn't negate the fact that informing yourself about the actual facts of the situation using an objective and non-politicized approach would've gone a long way here. OP should reflect and learn the lesson. – code_dredd Sep 11 at 19:06
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    @Agent_L That's a very depressing view of the world. Everyone makes mistakes, some consequences are more serious than others, most can be recovered from. – Tim B Sep 18 at 8:51

Dollars to doughnuts no-one but you cares

Don't mistake your personal embarrassment for other people's perception of you. The overwhelming probability is that everyone else has moved on from this, and it won't have any strong influence on your future within the company or your co-workers perception of you.

The best approach is to forget about it and simply try to do better in future. Don't make things worse by bringing it up again now.

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    The thing is people do care and they do remember. They may not remember the action but the impression lasts a long time. Future meetings will be dominated by a presence of apprehension by attendees as they try to figure out what it is about this person which makes it okay to ignore this meeting. As a potential win, OP's slip-up might lead to the room being renamed but when someone inquires as to why it got renamed then someone will quickly bring up "Oh, a member of the equal rights group suggested that father's get a nursing room too; heh." – MonkeyZeus Sep 10 at 15:30
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    This is great advice for simple everyday mistakes. It's way off for something like this. OP displayed a stunning lack of judgment that most likely was received extremely poorly, and it will probably be remembered. – Matthew Read Sep 10 at 19:00
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    I think there's a caveat here: It depends on OP's approach, tone, and kind of message during the presentation. If OP took a hostile approach during the presentation, then it's more likely to be remembered and have long-term negative consequences. – code_dredd Sep 11 at 20:14

Apologize by contributing positive value to the organization.

Mistakes can and do harm reputation. There are other options presented in the other answers that have to do with apologizing verbally or working with this exact topic, but I would suggest that you reverse the harm by actively coming up with positive value in future projects/discussions.

Work hard. Contribute. Assist with the goals of the organization. Be a key member.

Basically, do what you should be doing with any organization. You have a role in this organization. You've forged relationships with these people, and with any relationship you can mend them with your actions. You're not defined by your mistakes unless you don't move forward.

In my opinion, this is the best apology without bringing excessive attention back to this old mistake.

I've made mistakes in companies before. And with those mistakes, I went into high-gear and worked very hard. Humans are complex. It can be helpful to remind your peers that your complexity means you can make mistakes and goofs, but also bring a lot of value.

It is too late for an apology despite suggested by others. Thing is, people get much more info from body language than by speaking and if you were embarraseed and felt guilty, it was alrady recognized. Also your "violation" was for all means neglible.

Apologies should be only given if an incident is fresh or if someone approaches you and ask for clarification. After three weeks it seems strange to receive an email because it looks more like that someone urged you to do it instead on your own volition.

That said, there are some disturbing trends in the other answers which I thing should be addressed.

Failure is a fact of life, the only thing we can do it is to make it better in the future. In fact, failure with genuine remorse is one wonderful opportunity to improve onself. Humans are social and being different individuals, we will have clashes which each others. It is inevitable. So the one very important thing is how we are able to live with each other and repair relationships.

This requires acknowledging errors and also being able to forgive others and oneself. So if someone judges you and urges you to give up your position, (s)he is the problem, not you. You were repentant and if someone still(!) dares to judge you, what exactly are you supposed to do? Traveling back in time? Worse, following this "advice" deprives you of learning from your mistakes. If we imagine that you would follow that each and every time, you are not only ending in a dead end, but you are feel miserable about it.

Humans are also not required to be apologetic about every fact they don't know. You are not going through the world with a head rotating like a radar antenna, your reflexes strung like a panther and with encyclopedic knowledge of every issue at hand.

People, I don't know if this another generation problem, but you are setting yourself up against an impossibly high standard. You are scaring yourself to death. Stop doing that, it only makes you miserable without reason. Accept that you will screw up. Simply try your best to repair damage, but it is not the world's end.

Now I am actually not a Christian, but one thing which makes Jesus so attractive is the promise that you are not lost. You are not predetermined to be the incurable jerk. You are still a human despite having flaws. Come to the realization that you are NOT the product of everyone else expectations.

Own up to the mistake and use it to point out we all have a lot to learn about the needs of others in the workplace.

Often inequality is caused when people with power don’t know what others need to be treated fairly in the workplace. People assume then understand the issues without actually asking different people. That is what you did in this case.

At you next meeting point out your mistake. Say that you learned the valuable lesson that we must all listen to others before forming opinions on issues of inequality. You don’t want to labour the point, but you do what to address it because otherwise you will be perceived as wanting things without any rationale other than wanting something because someone else got it.

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    +1 for the acknowledgement of the mistake at the next meeting. That's the most appropriate place to apologise, too, if needed. At the risk of negating the apology, it could also be pointed out that nobody provided corrections during the last meeting. An inclusive meeting should be a safe place to point out mistakes like that and a group discussing equality should be inclusive. – Pam Sep 13 at 13:11

You made a mistake. Handle it like any mistake: Learn from the educational moments, forget the embarrassment.

Analyze: What was the mistake about? From the vantage point of the internet bystander, i'd say it was about

  1. not exploring the perceived problem (get facts, get relevant opinions) and
  2. not testing your solution enough (at least give an elevator-pitch of your presentation to someone relevant)

Don't stop at those trivial bulletpoints, really dig into the mistake with a scientific mindset - it will both yield important hints for your future actions, and help you get over the embarrassment.

Now about the way ahead: Implement what you learned - By example concerning my above bulletpoints, you are now doing an exploration, but part of that will also have to include relevant opinions, so go speak to someone on that group to get a feel for how your presentation was received and is remembered. Then, formulate a plan to remedie the situation and promptly set it into action... joking, of course. Take the solution to somebody in the company, or best in the task group and bounce it off them, to get a feel for the reception that solution will get, then scrap or alter as needed.

Apart from the rather broad advice above, i'd recommend something funny as part of the solution: It's now 3+ weeks after the incident, so possible emotional fires have burned low by now, and a heartfelt apology would meet with a lot of 'what is this even about? - did she do something embarrassing?'; Rather give a short, funny, self-deprecating talk about the pitfalls of equality in an unequal world, possibly involving speherical cows in a vacuum, though that might hit a little too close for comfort, so maybe go with elephants (which might be too political, assuming you're from the States) or chickens (it is hard to find a bland animal, isn't it). Those that remember the incident will appreciate the self-deprecating allusion to the embarrassment as a byway to an apology, those that don't remember the incident will appreciate the levity in general.

  • The OP and the other members of the advocacy group should have your two bullet points on their desk in a frame. – Ivana Sep 11 at 11:32

The general answer I'd give is the same as everyone else... let it go.

But if you're worried that others aren't letting it go, and they're forming opinions about you, you might need to act.

Three weeks is too late for a plain ol' apology. You're going to have to own that mistake. It's yours now. But you can decide what it means. You decide the narrative for it. You should try to make it mean something light.

At some point, you may find that a conversation gives you the opportunity to laugh at your mistake. Do so! Make it be a funny thing, rather than a thing that grinds on you.

Its a hard skill, but it can be done. Just remember, the movie Green Lantern came out in 2011. It took Ryan Reynolds 5 years until he was able to turn it into a joke in Deadpool. It took another two years before he could shoot it in the head in Deadpool 2, and bury it for good.

LOL Just let it slip!

High chances are people laugh about it when and if that comment cross their minds.

You talked because of ignorancy of both the Room purpose AND the fact that GOOD mothers are ALWAYS more stressed and "on the line" than we fathers (good or not). Apart from that, your rationale would be standing, IMHO.

High chances also are that you are young enough for it to be taken in account when considering the whole qui-pro-quo

Tip: try to make fun of it (and yourself) from time to time when chatting with other people who heard what you said. Taking it to the funny side would help them not to misjudge you and you not to feel too bad about your... exploit... XD

But next time please do think twice before talking and do please know the limits of your knowledge.

  • You don't... ok... Even without knowing what a new mom's room's for, if he had simply considered the psychophysical impact that giving birth is having on new moms OR how much more an average actively taking care mother would be deserving a "working nap" than us average helping fathers he would have been alright with the hypothetical New Mom's Napping Room and not have talked. Thank you anyway for understanding (thus appreciating) the rest of my answer :/ – Shockwaver Sep 11 at 7:46
  • Actually my AND should have been a conditional OR which would have brought the OP to talk only if he did NOT consider (the room's purpose AND better new mother's right to rest)... my bad there – Shockwaver Sep 11 at 7:55
  • If someone is unable to take disability or family leave time immediately after giving birth, a napping room is just a bandaid on a more serious problem, which would have been much more worth addressing. – swbarnes2 Sep 14 at 17:57

I would say unless you got a warning letter don't fret about it. The paternity leave and so on is a tough sell unless one has become a male parent (I haven't), it's rather intangible to the average "bloke". Whereas women who go through maternity have obvious biological changes and needs that is straightforward to empathise with. Not to say that what you outline about male parenthood is not salient and relevant (though it clearly requires further research).

No worries, it's easy to send out an email clearly outlining and apologising about your mistake regarding breastfeeding. Obviously that is a privacy, OH&S issue, etc.

In that same email, offer a solution, perhaps showing how other companies your organisation admires addressed the situation. I suggest, that without getting into equality, gender, LGBT issues and what not, just say how about a "New Parents Room" or some sort of recreational zone/ activity/ support area for any new parent. This covers all non-breastfeeding non-biological-type parental activity and relaxation regardless of x y z view of who and what a parent is.

As for the presentation, one thing I realised is that sometimes in an organisation one can be very passionate about your job, the company and so on. This zeal may or may not be easily accepted by the "higher-ups". Depending on the organisation it can help, or frame you as a "threat". Even if you are well-intended (mistakes and all), I find "higher-ups" can have very vested interests in someone not shaking the boat too much. Nonetheless my opinion stands that an apology and proposed reasonable solution should not go wrong and bring closure to this matter.

Frame challenge: You did nothing wrong.

I'll ask You a simple question: so what does breastfeeding have to do with disparity between maternity and paternity leaves?

I'll ask another simple question: so why only mothers get to feed their babies in specially designated room and not fathers? Mind You that the whole idea of feeding kids is to avoid discomfort for the rest of the workers in the building. Children cry a lot, burp, vomit and generally make a LOT of mess when they eat, REGARDLESS of biological sex of the parent. So making feeding room for mothers and not fathers makes completely no sense.

I could go on and on, but the point is, the objective arguments are just that, objective. Human intentions cannot change them. If the room inspired You to point an objective problems, then whether or not you were well informed about intended usage about the room does not matter.

If anything, the rest of the group behaved very rudely by ignoring what you said.

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    Maybe you don't read very well the question: it states ""New Mom's Room" was intended for breast feeding women to be able to have privacy while pumping. " (emphasis mine), which does not means that the woman is feeding the children, but that she is only pumping out milk from the breast to have it to feed the baby later (or to store it in the freezer). – Gianluca Sep 10 at 10:12
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    So you read it carefully, and noticed that the purpose of the room has nothing to do with bringing children into the room, but your argument still seems to be based on the idea that dads should also have a room to bring children into? – Beofett Sep 10 at 12:10
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    Since you still don't seem to have understood the point of the room, let me try and spell it out. A breastfeeding mother will continue to produce milk regardless of whether or not baby is with her. In order for her to get through the day without discomfort or embarrassing leakage, she may need to express some milk into a bottle during the workday. This is a uniquely maternal problem that fathers don't have. The room isn't for feeding, and there's no suggestion that babies are allowed to be in the office with either parent. – timbstoke Sep 10 at 13:34
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    This answer still seems to make its point even after taking the comments into consideration... even though it doesn't make it for the reasons stated in the answer. By making the same mistake as OP even after reading OP's Q and the answers to it, this answer makes it evident that it is easy to misunderstand the situation at hand. Some people at OP's presentation probably didn't even realize the mistake that OP made. Still, as this answer suggests, OP should not act like they did something terrible when it's such an easy mistake. Just correct for future, as per other answers. – Aaron Sep 10 at 18:28
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    @timbstoke "This is a uniquely maternal problem that fathers don't have." Well, technically, you never know :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 11 at 10:41

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