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Closing The Gender Apology Gap

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For both genders to be seen equally as leaders we need to close the apology gap. Men should say "sorry" more, and women should say it less. This inconsistency comes from the difference in power each holds in society.

While it is true that we have made progress in gender equality, when it comes to leadership, men and women still don't compete on a level playing field. There are vastly divergent expectations about how men and women should behave, which tip the scales on how apologies are perceived from each gender.

Men don't apologize routinely, admit to a basic error or fault, and we don't expect it from them. If they offer a heartfelt apology, we are grateful, heap them with praise and put them on a pedestal. We credit them with being strong and confident. Our admiration grows, as does our perception of their leadership capabilities.

Women, on the other hand, have a habit of apologizing regardless of the situation. We over-apologize, and society expects it from us.

Constantly saying "sorry" lowers our status, reduces our credibility and makes us seem like doormats.

The problem is that women have a lower margin of error when it comes to offensive behaviour. We say "sorry" as a way to cement goodwill, and it becomes a bad habit.

An apology reorganizes the power hierarchy and makes us indebted to another person (for at least a little while). Men who are used to having power over others find this unsettling; it rattles their sense of security. A perfect example was Fonzie on the old TV show "Happy Days". Every time he tried to say he was wrong or sorry, he would trip over his words, stumble, stutter and mumble.

I often tease my husband that he is just like Fonzie, but he's not alone. When working in my corporate job I watched men get defensive, argue that their side of the story was correct and try to shift the blame to others, rather than make an apology. It was much easier to have a debate about the facts than acknowledge that they might have hurt someone's feelings.

Meanwhile, we women apologize profusely, even if we are the aggrieved party. Sloane Crosley described this in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. When a restaurant served her an improperly washed salad full of dirt, she said she was sorry before registering her complaint. Then she apologized for not eating it and for not accepting the incorrect replacement order.

As a VP, I remember knocking on the CEO's door: "Hi, I'm sorry, you look busy, I can come back later..." I wasn't sorry, so why was I apologizing? In retrospect, I see that I wanted opportunities and knew that depended on being liked. Clearly, I linked apologies with being polite and ultimately well regarded.

Men who worked in my department would knock on my door and say, "Hey, I want to show you something". They felt no compunction to say, "I'm sorry" as they confidently work and interact with a larger margin of error.

Amy Carroll, a communications expert, says tongue-in-cheek that a woman shouldn't apologize unless the building burned down and she lit the match! Her teaching methods seek ways for two people to come together with equal respect for one another as partners.

When women apologize unnecessarily, we put ourselves in a 'power under' position and lose any chance at the equal status that comes with partnership.

Furthermore, it erodes our abilities to make important declarative statements that would establish us as leaders.

Alexandra Petri gave a hilarious commentary on this in her ComPost blog "Woman in a Meeting". In her article, she translated some famous sentences into phrases showing the way a woman would be required to say them in order to uphold traditional societal standards.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous line, "I have a dream!" said by a woman in a meeting might sound more like this: "I'm sorry, I just had this idea--it's probably crazy--but, look, just as long as we're throwing things out here, I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?"

Sloane Crosley concludes her New York Times piece by saying that women apologize as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing. I couldn't agree more. We want men to acknowledge their part in misunderstandings or mistakes. To do that we must give up our propensity to apologize, expressing what we really need in clear, coherent and concise declarative statements. ‎

In a Globe and Mail article, Harvey Schachter describes a good apology, saying you have to be open to acknowledging the other's position, be willing to include a sign of sacrifice and state how you are willing to change to improve things in the future.

Members of both genders should strive for these meaningful apologies. Women need to quit taking so much responsibility and keep their apologies in check, while men need to increase their responsibility and offer up apologies more frequently.

When both do their parts, we'll close the apology gap and have an opportunity to realign the balance of power between the genders. These changes will not only change society's expectations they will allow both men and women to lead effectively and equally.