Career Advice

Sorry, Not Sorry! The Problem With Women & Workplace Apologies

Apologies harmonize and unify. They can mend relationships and seed the regrowth of trust. To apologize is to accept fault and to inch towards compromise.

When extended at the right moment, an apology can show humility, character and leadership. But this backfires if one apologizes too frequently. In fact, it becomes hard to take someone seriously, especially on the professional front, if she repeatedly accepts responsibility for wrong-doing.

Many women recognize that they tend to apologize nervously and needlessly. We apologize to servers who bring us the wrong orders, to bus drivers who miss our stops, to men who invade our space.

We also say we’re sorry at work-a lot. We apologize when an issue comes up that wasn’t our fault but is our responsibility. We say “I’m sorry” when we mean “excuse me.” We apologize when we confront a problem that, we worry, calls our performance into question.

Unnecessary apologies project a lack of confidence, so let’s edit them out of our professional lexicon. The first step to quitting any bad habit is to admit when it’s become problematic.

If you recognize that you’re apologizing too often, take a step back and think about why you might be doing so.

1. Ruminating or intense thinking

Scientific American examines the issue: “Researchers analyzed the number of self-reported offenses and apologies made by 66 subjects over a 12-day period. And yes, they confirmed women consistently apologized more times than men did. But they also found that women report more offenses than men. So the issue is not female over-apology. Instead, there may be a gender difference in what is considered offensive in the first place.”

[Related: 6 Steps To Find Your Voice In The Workplace]

This gender difference in defining what constitutes offense and dealing with that infraction by apologizing are both problematic, especially in the workplace. What does this mean? Why would women do this? Are they stirring up trouble? Are men not paying enough attention, or could there be another factor causing women to identify and then apologize for issues that men don’t even recognize?

In their book The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write, “Another unhelpful habit most of us have is overthinking. Women spend far too much time undermining themselves with tortured cycles of useless self-recrimination. It is the opposite of taking action, the cornerstone of confidence. There is a formal word for it: ruminating.”

So perhaps what starts as rumination—deep thought into the social mechanics of a professional situation—leads to doubt and worry. The apology comes as a way to solve this concern and to mend the perceived wrong, but perhaps we don’t have to delve this deep. According to this study, our male counterparts don’t.

[Related: One Thing Women Need to Negotiate Better Salaries: Confidence]

2. Internalized sexism

When a girl grows up hearing that she is less capable of achievement in certain subjects or that she is more emotionally chaotic and therefore less reliable than a boy, these messages take root. These environmental urgings become a part of her self-education and self-esteem construction. They impact how she sees herself, her ability and her future role.

Then when she assumes her place in the professional world, she may have more internal baggage to manage than her male counterpart. His confidence may be more accessible than hers. He may be more likely to feel like he belongs in his roles. She may be more likely to feel like she’s auditioning, even after she gets the job. This can make her feel concerned about her performance and, therefore, likely to apologize for perceived shortcomings.

[Related: Inspiring Advice from Women CEOs]

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explains: “As women, we must never be surprised that surface equality isn’t actual equality. Society still very much plays into gender bias and role definition. When a woman walks into a room, people see a female. For some, this indicates what she is capable of achieving. This, however, should not deter you. If you spend all of your time thinking about how you are viewed, you will lose your ability to be effective. Walk in, embrace your job and do what you’re supposed to do.”

3. People pleasing

Most people want others to like them. But this is harder for successful women. Sheryl Sandberg writes: “When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”

Perhaps the litany of apologies women frequently utter are a means by which to temper this; to avoid sounding too bossy, rude or heavy-handed. Sandberg continues, “In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.”

[Related: 10 Ways for Women to Lean In]

Apologies work the same way. By saying “I’m sorry,” perhaps we are saying “please like me.”

In order to be successful, we have to develop an authoritative inner voice, which informs our outer voice. This can’t happen if we’re repeatedly looking outside ourselves for “likes,” approval or permission to do our best work.

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