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“I’m sorry.” These two words are uttered too often by women in the workplace, say experts, eroding confidence and damaging perceptions of ability and leadership.

Excessive apologizing is a bad – but ingrained – habit that women need to ditch immediately, according to sociologist Maja Jovanovic. Dr. Jovanovic, known as Professor Maja in her popular TEDx Talk on the subject, is in the middle of a six-year research study on the harmful effects of “sorry” in the workplace.

“It hurts us,” she says. “It absolutely hurts us.”

Why do we do it?

“Often times we think, ‘Oh I’m being polite, they’re going to perceive me as being a kind human being,’” says Dr. Jovanovic. “But in fact, we are perceived in the complete opposite way. In actuality, we are seen as not confident, as insecure, doubtful and incompetent.”

There are, of course, occasions where “I’m sorry” is warranted in the workplace, she notes, but these are few and far between compared to the amount of times the two words are said. And yes, it’s true that men also apologize and are willing to do so if they see it as a warranted response, but they do it a lot less because they don’t deem it necessary.

In fact, a 2010 study from the University of Waterloo found that “men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.”

Trying to ‘fit the mould’

In her 2018 book, How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, U.S.-based leadership coach Sally Helgesen says that apologizing unnecessarily at work minimizes women’s accomplishments.

In a 2019 podcast for the Harvard Business Review, Ms. Helgen said, “I’ve noticed in recent years that opening whatever you’re going to say with an apology has spread, and to some degree it’s just a habit … and it’s important to break because … it’s a form of minimizing yourself, your presence and your contribution.”

Apologizing too much can also make someone feel like they’re not being authentic at work, says Patricia Faison Hewlin, associate professor at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.

“Women are not necessarily being true to themselves because they are trying to fit the mould of what femininity is within a given context – how women should be and how they should act,” she says.

The consequences of this prolonged inauthenticity could mean less women in C-suites, particularly in more traditional or male-dominated workplaces.

“When people suppress themselves, it stresses them out, they are less likely to be engaged in their work, their commitment to the organization is also reduced,” explains Dr. Hewlin, “and the irony is that the stress of doing this causes them to leave.”

Breaking the habit

Dr. Jovanovic’s advice is to first take note of how often an apology comes out of your mouth in an hour, a day, a week. The next step is to get rid of these messy, unnecessary and harmful apologies all together. Or, replace “I’m sorry” with “excuse me” or “thank you.” For example, when trying to get one’s point across in a board meeting, don’t say, “I’m sorry, but …” to get your turn to speak. Instead, say “Excuse me, but I think …”

Dr. Hewlin points out that organizations should also be examining how their company culture may be contributing to the problem.

“We need to be placing more responsibilities on the companies, because the conversations have traditionally looked at [the question], ‘How should the woman change?’” she says. “Really, a lot more responsibility should be given to the work context and the work environment that is in play.”

This story has been updated to correctly reflect Dr. Maja Jovanovic’s and Dr. Patricia Faison Hewlin’s titles.

Ask Women and Work

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Question: I’ve recently been diagnosed with a health issue that will affect my ability to do my job. I want to stay in my position, but due to my condition, I will not be able to continue working at my current pace. I’ve been in this job for several years and I am good at it, but the volume of work is high. How should I approach my employer to let them know I need to lessen my workload, but still keep my job?

We asked Joanna Goode to field this one. Ms. Goode is the executive director of The Canadian Association for Supported Employment (CASE), a national association that works with employers toward employment inclusion of people experiencing disability.

The question of if, when, and how to disclose a health issue or disability that might affect your job is a personal one. Take the time to consider your options, and decide on a plan that feels comfortable to you.

Reflect on who you’d like to tell. Would you rather discuss it with your immediate supervisor, or with the HR department of your company? Who you disclose to might be affected by your existing relationships, the size of your company, and whether your organization’s current culture and processes are supportive and inclusive. Whoever you decide to tell must keep that information confidential.

You are under no obligation to disclose any specifics about your diagnosis. Instead, focus on what you need to continue to do your job at the level for which you were hired. There may be a combination of things that you as a worker can do, and also things that need a modification or accommodation from your employer. Think about changes to the work environment, assigned tasks, and work processes. Approach the conversation with some ideas in hand to get things off to a good start, recognizing both your needs and the requirements of the position that you hold. Employers are required to provide accommodation to the point of undue hardship for the business.

Finally, you can call in extra support from organizations who work with employees in similar situations every day. They will offer suggestions to both you and your employer for making modifications or accommodations so that you can continue to bring your best to the job, meet the expectations of your employer and create a workplace that is inclusive and accessible.

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