27 September 2023

Sorry advice: Why advising women not to say sorry won’t change anything

Start the conversation

Meredith the Mentor* says achieving gender diversity in leadership requires a lot more than telling women to stop saying sorry or to behave differently.

Image: Dragana Jokmanovic

I heard a leadership tip recently telling women to “stop saying sorry” if they want to “break the glass ceiling”. (See this PS News link)

Now this is hardly novel advice, or all that original.

But it left me stumped and frustrated hearing it for the umpteenth time, even though I’ve previously written and shared similar advice from others noting that as women, we spend far too much time apologising.

Yes, we apologise for being late, for not responding to an email immediately, for not being able to attend yet another event.

We apologise because often we have a dozen different plates spinning at any one time and sometimes — or often — one or two or all of them will simply fall to the ground and break.

Women, apparently, say sorry more than men.

And that, apparently, is one of the reasons why we’re just not getting leadership positions at similar rates to our male counterparts.

Perhaps it’s because we’ve been socialised to believe our opinions, our voice or something else should come second to men’s, as psychologist Mel Schilling recently explained.

And, yes, in this case, speaking up during a meeting should absolutely not have to start with the word “sorry”.

But for some women, it simply will.

The socialisation has happened.

Perhaps it can be coached out of women but maybe it’s also part of who they are.

If it’s a matter of speaking up or not getting heard at all, I say let the woman apologise first and use whatever language makes her feel comfortable.

Maybe it will encourage men in the room to also apologise for their own interruptions.

There are thousands of articles urging women to stop saying sorry and offering tips on how to end your reliance on the word.

Some of it is useful, but much of it reverts again to the idea that women need to change their behaviour.

There are apps and email plugins you can use to help break the habit, and numerous leadership coaches available to help you adjust your communication style.

It’s all there to help women break the sorry habit and get ahead.

There are a lot of things that need to be done in order to see more women “breaking the glass ceiling”, much of it required from the very organisations that employ such women in the first place as well as government policies that can hinder rather than help.

If only gender diversity in corporate leadership were as easy as telling women to stop saying sorry — or even as simple as telling women to behave differently.

Killing women’s use of the word sorry is not going to make it happen.

I’ve tried to curb my own use of the word over the years, following advice that I need to put an end to it and never concede anything on my own minor failings.

It didn’t help me break the glass ceiling.

Turns out also that I’m not that great at not saying sorry.

It may come down to making the same mistakes repeatedly, but it happens and often due to things beyond my control but that I want to take responsibility for: my kids get sick and I can’t go to that meeting, so I apologise.

My boss is in town and asked me last minute for an update, so I’m going to be late to the one I scheduled with you, and I apologise.

I couldn’t get on top of my inbox on Monday, so I’m responding 48 hours later and I’m sorry you’ve had to wait this long.

I also see some of these sorrys as my way of raging against the system.

The system of difficult school hours and single parenting that continually make me late.

A system of working part-time that actually has me working full-time, just at odd and exhausting hours (and getting paid part-time for the privilege).

A system that expects immediate responses to the countless interruptions that occur on a daily basis.

I don’t always have the energy to rage loudly against the system — and prefer to reserve the energy I do have for more serious injustices — so I revert to a more subtle and passive approach.

What if we turned the advice around and suggested that rather than women apologising too much, men don’t do it enough?

It won’t smash the glass ceiling, but it could help in seeing a little more accountability regarding how we spend our time.

Maybe it’d give men an avenue to rage against the same parts of the system women are frustrated by.

* Meredith the Mentor is a contributing writer to Women’s Agenda.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.