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posted: 5/29/2014 5:01 AM

The value of a push

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A little girl can break her daddy's heart with one question.

A few days ago, my 9-year-old daughter -- noticing I was in a suit and not my usual, casual attire -- asked me where I was going, and I told her. I had been invited to judge a high school debate competition. She asked what that was all about, and I told her it is where two teams square off and make well-constructed arguments, trying to convince a judge of their point of view.

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She asked, "Can girls do that?"

I can't imagine my 7-year-old son would ever ask such a question about whether boys would have these opportunities. He just assumes he can do anything he wants.

It both surprised and saddened me that, upon hearing about the world of high school debate, my daughter's first thought would be of limitations, barriers and closed doors. She wanted to know if she'd be welcomed there.

Foolishly, I thought our society was past this sort of thing. Earlier generations raised sons and daughters with different goals and expectations. Boys went to college, and started careers. Girls got married, and started families.

In our home, as in many modern homes, we don't think this way. I expect my daughters to be just as successful as my son, if not more so. If they put in the effort, the sky is the limit.

Now, because of recent events in the world of journalism, I've had to wonder whether -- once my daughters become successful -- they will get labeled as "pushy" by some jealous colleague or small-minded boss trying to put them in their place.

You mean there are pushy folks in journalism? You don't say? I've been writing for nearly 25 years, and I've worked for three different newspapers. I've been pushed around plenty, and I've pushed back. I've yelled and cursed and hung up on editors. I once saw two colleagues nearly come to blows after a supervisor insulted a subordinate. I've been reprimanded for challenging the boss.

Newsrooms are not for the faint of heart. It's a hyper-democratic environment in which everyone has a point of view. It's expected that you'll fight for your stories and defend your opinions. You're not supposed to fold under pressure. You're supposed to -- dare I say it? -- push.

So what in the world was Arthur Sulzberger Jr. thinking? The publisher of The New York Times recently said that Jill Abramson was dismissed as executive editor because of "arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues."

Is he kidding? An executive editor made "arbitrary" decisions? She failed to "consult and bring colleagues with her"? Why, alert the media!

At all three of the newspapers for which I worked, the people at the top "consulted" with the rest of us by sending out office memos telling us about changes to be made, and how it was going to be from now on. But then, in most of those cases, the top bosses were men. No one expected them to take a survey of employees before acting, or move forward on projects only after reaching a consensus. When they plowed ahead with boneheaded decisions, no one called them "pushy." They were seen as strong, decisive and firm. And, often when they failed, they were rewarded with a promotion. So they "failed up."

My daughters probably won't have that luxury. So, faced with the question, I quickly offered an answer.

"Yes, honey, of course, girls can do that," I said. "In fact, some of the best debaters I've seen -- at the high school and college level -- were girls and women. You can do anything a boy can do, and, if you work hard, you can do it better. Remember that."

She smiled, hugged me and walked away. I hope she went to study her vocabulary, or practice speaking in front of a mirror.

Later that day, the high school debate competition went off without a hitch. The teams -- two boys versus two girls -- were exceptional, and evenly matched. Both were assertive in arguing their positions. They challenged one another aggressively. But in the end, the girls won.

The lesson: No matter what your gender, if you want to be the first across the finish line, you have to push.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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