Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Not Sorry I'm Not Sorry

Jessica Glass Kendorski, Ph.D

Pantene's recent commercial depicting women apologizing for being assertive has been getting lots of attention from national media outlets such as Good Morning America and ABC News.  In the ad, several women are seen saying “I’m sorry” in situations that clearly don’t call for it—for example, one woman apologizes for interrupting a business meeting, and another apologizes for handing her husband their child after he comes home from work.

The ad comes at an opportune moment; this week, President Obama is hosting the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families, which will address improving gender equality on the workplace. In light of all of this, I wonder if gender differences in communication account for some of that disparity.

Women make up 47 percent of the work force. Working married women bring home 44 percent of their family’s income, and women make up 59 percent of the recipients of college degrees. Yet women only earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.  Could the tendency for women to constantly apologize, and engage in less assertive communication, be a possible contributor to this wage gap?

Expectations are key. Expectations guide communication in the workforce and also guide how adults communicate to impressionable children. Men are expected to ask for what they need and women are expected to apologize for asking. Fostering equal environments in the workforce begins with fostering equal expectations for men and women—starting in early childhood.

Early on, girls are taught to stifle displays of negative emotions such as anger and frustration, and often express the opposite of what they’re feeling, such as smiling even though they’re not happy—and apologizing when they’re not sorry.  On the other hand, it is more acceptable for boys to show evidence of anger and frustration. Because boys can externalize their feelings, they are able to learn to express these behaviors appropriately through assertive communication. If girls continuously suppress their emotions, then they may never learn how to truly be assertive.

Regardless of gender, children experience intense emotions and need to be supported and taught appropriate ways of dealing with these emotions. Adults should be aware of their expectations and the behavior these expectations foster in children.  Boys are expected and taught to grow up strong and assertive, but girls should be taught the same. And as the Pantene commercial shows, women can find strength in the ability to truly express their feelings.

Chaplin, T.A., Aldao, A. (2013). Gender difference in Emotion Expression in Children: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 4, 735-765.