Contours

voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit

SORRY

BY VALERIE BLACK ST-LAURENT
STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW

 

“I’m sorry, would you mind…” / “Sorry could you possibly…” / “Sorry, I know I’ve been flooding you with…” / “Thanks so much for this, sorry for…” / “Sorry to bother you…”

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve jokingly told my female friends to put money in the “sorry” jar for apologizing for things they shouldn’t apologize for. If every woman on the planet put money in the same jar, we would have enough money to end poverty– forever. It’s nothing new. Studies show that women tend to apologize significantly more for behaviour that is otherwise deemed to be acceptable for men.[1] Women not only apologize more, but also ask for less, particularly in the context of pay raises.[2] We have been conditioned to apologize not only for achieving success or being in positions of power, but simply for existing outside of what society considers to be “the norm”.

I’m no exception. Since my Cégep years, I have held managerial positions in various organizations. Without fail, I find myself apologizing when requesting that my team members complete the tasks that are already part of their listed responsibilities. This article’s lede is pretty much the beginning of every email or message I’ve sent to so many of my colleagues, regardless of their gender.

From attaining legal personhood to presiding as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, we women have achieved so much. In the legal world and beyond, women, appointed or not, are beginning to fill positions of power. Yet, we are still apologizing for it.

So why all this apologizing? Maybe it’s the lack of representation. Despite the progress that’s been made, very few women actually occupy positions of power.[3] When we do, society doesn’t give us a break for choosing a career that requires us to dedicate a significant amount of time to it; it is still expected that women spend time trying to build a family and maintain a clean household.[4]

Our socialization process is also at fault. Unfortunately, it continues to perpetuate the age-old stereotype that women are expected to “behave” a certain way. As such, we have been taught to feel guilty about our actions a lot more than men.[5] This is namely because we have been socialized to act in ways that please everyone, not to cause conflict and ultimately, not to feel entitled. When a woman who holds a position of power apologizes for asking something within her purview, the subtext is: “I’m sorry I don’t conform to gender stereotypes. I feel guilty for asking you to execute tasks because my request requires you to acknowledge me as your superior and thus, defines my duties as being other than changing the kids and fixing you a sandwich.” This may seem like an exaggeration, but it reflects many women’s underlying feelings when we use apologetic language: we feel guilty about holding a position of power, as if it was not our place to do so.

Our grandmothers, mothers, and our generation have fought and achieved so much despite still living in a world dominated by middle-aged white men. These women have allowed us to have a place at the table; they have allowed me to write this article without fear of prejudice.

So please, can we stop apologizing for being great and start asking for the recognition we deserve? Can we state oh-so-proudly that we can be CEOs, Board Advisors, Justices, and so much more? That’s the least our predecessors deserve. These women fought too hard for us to still be apologizing for turning the tide.


[1] Karina Schumann & Michael Ross, “Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior” (2010) 21:10 Psychological Science 1649.

[2] Jennifer Ludden, “Ask For A Raise? Most Women Hesitate”, NPR (8 February 2011), online:  <www.npr.org> [https://perma.cc/36LA-US23].

[3] Zameena Mejia, “Just 24 Female CEOs Lead the Companies on the 2018 Fortune 500—Fewer Than Last Year”, CNBC (21 May 2018), online: <www.cnbc.com> [perma.cc/98UW-ZGLR].

[4] Kala Jean Melchiori, Backlash Against Working Mothers (PhD Dissertation, Loyola University Chicago, 2015) at 94 [unpublished], online: <ecommons.luc.edu> [perma.cc/K9WK-BEDF].

[5] Schumann & Ross, supra note 1.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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