Women Need to Stop Saying Sorry in the Workplace

“Sorry, but I actually ordered the brownie, not the crumble.” 

“Sorry to bother you, but would you mind reading through this essay?”

“Sorry, but can I just squeeze into that seat next to you? Only if it’s not too much trouble.”

Sorry is a word that is drummed into our heads from a young age. We all know the answer to “What do you say for pinching your sister?”; the magic word lets us off the hook. Uttering those two syllables equals acceptance and forgiveness for any seemingly defied codes of conduct. It's all very well when apologising for the action of pinching our siblings, but in the adult world women seem to be apologising more and more for their actions in the workplace.

A study carried out by the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that, whilst men are just as willing as women to apologize, they have a higher threshold for what they are inclined to apologise for. Whilst a man might apologize for letting a business deal fall through, a woman may apologize for putting too much milk in their colleague’s morning coffee. Women, more often than men, seem to apologize out of a desire to seem likable. It appears to be an embedded insecurity; putting “Sorry” before our words cancels out the power of the sentiment that follows, as if women have to feel sorry for voicing an opinion.

I suppose there is a similarity with our colloquial usage of “Like.” I remember being caught out by my teachers in school; “Repeat your words to me, Bethan, but stop using ‘like’.” In all likelihood I first said “Sorry” for my initial words. Then I tried to repeat my sentence without the word “Like”... The verbal tick was incredibly difficult to give up. “Sorry” has become a verbal tick for women in the workplace, but with far more damaging consequences. Figures collected by the Huffington Post show that women’s obsequious language not only reflects but results in our subservient position in the workplace. The figures show that 29% of UK MPs are women, the pay gap is 19% and 80% of university professors are male. Clearly, “Sorry” is not the magic word after all.

The hair company Pantene recently raised awareness of women’s tendency to apologise. While I am sceptical about the ultimate message of Pantene’s advert (which implicitly implies that the key to female empowerment is luscious hair), the advert demonstrates how easily that word sneaks into our interactions with others, subtly demeaning our actions and behaviour, even our very presence.

 

I’m “Sorry” (not sorry), but I don’t think that conditioner is key to my professional success. I have more faith in the new “Just Not Sorry app.” Created by Tami Reiss, the app works by underlining self-minimizing or apologetic words or phrases in your emails such as “Sorry”, “Would you mind” and “I’m not an expert.” If you hover your mouse over the underlined word, it will give an explanation as to why you might want to change your word choice, usually in the form of an inspiring quote from a woman such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett (“Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”). Since its creation in December, 5000 people have downloaded the app. It's no revolution, but it’s a start to try to find a way for “Sorry” to be banished from women’s vocabulary (with the exception of when we spill tea into a client’s lap).

Photo Credit: Google Chrome

I think that if you tallied up every time you said the word “Sorry” in a day, you would be surprised. Let’s stop thinking of it as that magic word; magic will truly happen when women are allowed to voice their opinions and act freely with no shame.