The app that helps women stop saying sorry

Thousands of women are making a New Year’s resolution to stop saying sorry at work — and a new app is here to help them. Why do women apologise more than men? And should they stop?

‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power. It’s time to say goodbye to the ‘justs’ — Tara Sophia Mohr.

This is the explanation that appears next to a small line, like a spell-check, underneath the word ‘just’ when written with a new gmail plug-in. Other triggers include ‘sorry’, ‘does that make sense?’ and ‘actually’.

The Just Not Sorry plug-in was invented by Cyrus Innovations CEO Tami Reiss after she attended a League of Extraordinary Women brunch. The women there were discussing their tendency to ‘soften’ their speech when they needed to display leadership. ‘We had all inadvertently fallen prey to a cultural communication pattern that undermined our ideas,’ she explained. And so she decided to create a tool to keep on top of their language. Since its release on New Year’s Eve, it has been downloaded around 25,000 times.

Many users believe the problem goes beyond awkwardly worded emails. In The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain that girls are expected to be less competitive than boys as they are growing up. As a result, women ‘generally underestimate their abilities’. Their results are confirmed by economics professor Linda Babcock, who found that men are four times more likely to ask for a promotion, and that when discussing a payrise, women ask for around 30% less than men.

But it is no surprise that women feel the need to apologise for themselves, argues Kieran Snyder, a tech CEO with a linguistics PHD. When she analysed the language of 248 performance reviews, she found that 71 included advice telling women to ‘watch their tone’ or ‘step back’. Only two gave similar advice to men. ‘I’m aghast at how closely under our noses we let this live,’ she said.

So is it time for women to stop saying the word sorry? The columnist Sloane Crosley thinks so. ‘But it’s just as important to articulate exactly what we mean in its place,’ she insists.

Sorry not sorry

Finally! Women must fight the idea that asserting their opinion makes them bossy and unlikeable, many say. We would all save a lot of time if we agreed to stop apologising when we haven’t done anything wrong — especially at work, where underselling ideas could hold back progress. An app that gently nudges us in the right direction is very welcome.

Hang on, caution others. Isn’t policing women’s language just another way of telling them how to behave? For many, ‘sorry’ and ‘actually’ are a way of being polite, and injecting some humanity into the impersonal world of cyberspace. Do we really want apps to tell us how to speak — to encourage an unequivocal world of robots barking orders at each other? Sorry, but that just doesn’t sound ideal for anyone.

You Decide

  1. When was the last time you said ‘sorry’? Do you think you had done something wrong?
  2. Is the Just Not Sorry app a useful way of fighting gender imbalance?

Activities

  1. Take it in turns to list some of the other words you say without thinking — such as ‘so’, ‘like’ or ‘literally’. Discuss the meanings of these words, and why you say them.
  2. Imagine you work for Tami Reiss. Her plug-in is so successful that she has asked you to come up with a similar product, which highlights another type of unwanted language. Write some key words and explain their hidden meanings.

Some People Say...

“Never apologise.”

Julia Child

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it matter? It’s just an email.
Unfortunately, the emails are part of a larger problem; if women don’t ask for promotions or pay rises, they can find themselves struggling to get ahead in their careers, or earning less than their male colleagues. We know that this is not just a theoretical problem — in 2013 in the UK, men were paid 19.7% more than women.
So what can we do?
It’s tricky; there is a lot of conflicting advice for women. You’ve seen the case for them being more assertive, but some argue that it’s perfectly acceptable to act ‘more feminine’ if it gets results — Professor Babcock found that this was one way for women to be given the pay rise they asked for during negotiations. In the end, it shouldn’t matter what people think of you: the important thing is to ask.

Word Watch

Gmail plug-in
A ‘plug-in’ is a form of software that is added on to an existing program. Just Not Sorry is used with Google Chrome, and highlights words which are written as part of a gmail draft.
League of Extraordinary Women
This is a ‘community of female entrepreneurs’ which was founded in Australia in 2011. Its name is a play on the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen .
25,000 times
As recorded on the evening of 10 January 2016.
Four times
From Babcock’s book, Women Don’t Ask. The economics professor was inspired to begin her research when female PHD students complained that their male colleagues were teaching their own classes. Upon investigation, Babcock found that the male students had directly asked their boss to let them do so, while the women had not.
Linguistics
The scientific study of language.
Unequivocal
Direct, and without any doubt.

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