Stop Telling Women to Stop Apologizing

An editor of mine recently banned the word 'sorry' in our all-women Slack channel. I could see what she was getting at—encouraging us to unapologetically take up space, to respect our work and our time. As a seasoned editor leading a team of mostly new, fresh-faced writers, she wanted to prepare us for a world in which our worth would persistently be called into question.

The data on gender discrimination backs up my editor’s insistence that we need to become our own best advocates. We all know the stats: 42% of women endure gender discrimination at work, including pay gaps and being passed over for important assignments. This depressing statistic is even higher for Black women, with 53% reporting gender discrimination. In 2020, the gender pay gap was still going strong: women in the US earned 84% of what men earned, meaning they would have to work an extra 42 days for the same wage. And so it goes.

However, I have a problem with banning the word ‘sorry’ in Slack. For one, every writer in the channel is a woman—it’s a supportive community, where everyone affirms each other and feels comfortable acknowledging each other’s value. When we exchange our clichés of 'sorry to bother you' or 'I hope this is okay?' or 'apologies for the late reply,' what we are really saying is 'I appreciate you’ and ‘thank you for sharing your time with me.' Our friendly, fluffy, emoji-filled messages have created a culture of mutual validation. Instinctually, I don’t want to replace it with more assertive, matter-of-fact communication.

Guidance for women in business typically focuses on molding us into existing power structures. We should stop apologizing, delegate, say no, talk louder, and adopt a ruthless approach to negotiation. These tips, though often well-intentioned, risk teaching a mentality that we can’t succeed unless we replicate the worst traits of toxic masculinity in the workplace, from aggression to inflexibility.

The advice we’re bombarded with is also complex, contradictory, and ultimately impossible to follow. Somehow, the ideal woman in corporate culture is both ambitious and humble; authoritative and non-threatening; and can disagree without being disagreeable. In fact, a Quartz article describes this type of advice as a form of gaslighting. Treading these fine lines and continually second-guessing ourselves quickly gets exhausting. Rather than addressing pervasive discrimination, messages of surface empowerment reinforce the idea that women must be doing something wrong.

When we reread an email, switching our question marks for full stops, we’re going into defensive mode. We feel compelled to show no signs of weakness, or else the biased systems surrounding us will dismiss our merit, take advantage of our accommodating behavior, and pass over us for promotion. This defensiveness is marketed as an unfortunate necessity. There’s even a Gmail plugin called Just Not Sorry to aid assertive communication ‘by warning you when you use words which undermine your message.’ It gives a false impression of control, as if by rearranging a few words, we’ll miraculously be respected and enjoy the same authority as men.

The last thing I want to do is fall into a trap of biological essentialism, in which males are viewed as ‘naturally’ assertive and females more empathetic. Instead, I think we urgently need to question whether the existing patriarchal model of business is the only way of doing things. Nobody should distort themselves to suit a system that polices their gender, character, and behavior according to a narrow definition of what achievement looks like.

The current approach of trying to shape women so we fit neatly into power structures is failing. An article in the Harvard Business Review points out that there has been minimal progress in terms of gender equality, despite ‘years of media publications and business gurus telling women to be more confident, lean in, find a mentor, or ask for more advice.’ A cut-throat hierarchy where we must rigorously protect our position, with no one else in our corner, seems like a pretty grim way to work anyway.

I’d much rather just send my sunny little emails, safe in the knowledge that I don’t have to earn the favor of the recipient by projecting stereotypes of corporate success. Women can demand the space to imagine new forms of work and leadership, where we’re not required to constantly be on the defensive. To experience the liberation and sheer relief that comes with knowing that we’ll always be respected, and our contributions valued.

My next email will probably start with "Sorry to bother you." Fortunately, in my professional network of strong and supportive women that I’ve been lucky enough to cultivate, the reply will be something like ‘Hey Flo! No need to apologize!’ followed by a smiley emoji. Our kind communication is not a sign of weakness, and I have no intention of changing it any time soon.