The Gender Apology Gap
By Pratibha Deepak
In the past weeks, the world has been consumed by the Facebook fiasco . In the incident that raised public outrage and a congressional hearing, it was revealed that information of nearly 87 million people were improperly shared with Cambridge Analytics, a consulting firm that did digital work for Donald Trump’s digital campaign in 2016.
This is not the first time that Facebook has been in middle of a firestorm, and definitely will not be the last! (not surprisingly, privacy advocates have long been screaming about the eventuality of a data privacy scandal).
I was not surprised by the by Facebook’s recent data breach and associated ethical transgressions. What really intrigued me was the response of a female leader, Sheryl Sandberg, in the midst of the chaos. The former Google executive, Sandberg, was the first to publicly offer an apology about the Facebook circus. Some might say she went on a full apology tour with interviews on CNBC , Fox News , NBC News and more . Her apology was an open, undiluted confession. She knew Facebook committed a crime and she took full responsibility for that. As quoted by her,
"We made mistakes and I own them and they are on me," she told NBC's Savannah Guthrie during an interview on Friday Today, part of which aired Thursday night.
In her interviews, Sheryl was apologetic and did not shy away from taking accountability. Her apology had the perfect rhythm – Admitting the mistake, Owning responsibility, and suggesting the Future course of action. During her interview, she added:
"We know at Facebook we did not do enough to protect people's data," Sandberg told Perino, also referencing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "Mark is sorry about that. I'm sorry about that." Sandberg further added that, the tech company is taking steps to become more transparent in the stories that it shares on users feed and also that, they will be sharing stories only from trusted feeds.
It was Sheryl who jumped out to douse the fire by going on an apology tour. The question is, then, why was the female leader, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, more aggressive in apologizing than the male leader, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook?
Perhaps, it has something to do with Sheryl being a woman? Possibly, by putting her in the spotlight, Facebook aims to regain the trust of followers. Or are women more likely than men in general to admit a mistake and hence, be the first one to apologize?
As Deborah Tannen, a McGraw distinguished lecturer at Princeton University had said,
“In the American context, there is ample evidence that women are more inclined to offer expressions of contrition than men. (Tannen, 1999, p. 67)
Research has argued that, men are not forthcoming with apologies because they have difficulty admitting that they are wrong! (Engel, 2000; Tannen, 1999). Tannen (2001) in her article further recounts an interesting story of a little boy who disliked Yom Kippur - the Jewish Day of Atonement – because on that day, "you have to say you're sorry" (p. 95).
So, why are men less likely to apologize?
“Suck it up, and be a man” is a common phrase that most of us have heard before. It captures the gender stereotyping of apology. Society sees men who apologies as weak and expects women to apologize. Engel (2001) argued, for men admitting wrongdoing is like losing a power struggle. This is further exemplified by comedian Jim Belushi’s (2006) best seller , which is adequately named Real Men Don’t Apologize. But, can there be another explanation to this? In fact, research suggests that men may be less likely to apologize because they fail to recognize that they have committed a mistake!
This brings us to an interesting experimental study conducted by Schumann and Ross (2010). In this study, 33 men and 33 women were asked to record conflicts with others for twelve days and report the gender of those making apologies at the end of the conflict. Women reported giving a greater number of apologies (217) than men (158), but women also reported committing more offenses (267) than men (196). The study concluded that compared to men, women reported offering more apologies then men. It was also found that, once men were made aware that, they had committed a transgression, they were as likely as women to offer apology. However, women in general are more likely to categorize a behavior as offensive and thus more likely to perceive that an offense occurred. From an organizational perspective, this has important implications. For organizations and leaders of organizations to be able to recover from mistake, it is necessary to admit that, a transgression has happened. Recovery will come only after admittance of mistake.
Does it Really Matter?
Apologies do matter! Experimental studies have shown that leader apologies can reduce anger and aggression and promote wellbeing in the leaders and followers (Basford, 2014; Byrne et. al, 2014).Though Zuckerberg, in his initial apology took responsibility for the Cambridge Analytica’s data abuse, he stopped short of officially verbalizing an apology. His apology was more like a statement about what Facebook will do in the future to prevent third part applications’ misuse of data. This was a departure from Sandberg’s statement, in which she did not hesitate to say, “I’m sorry.”
If a leader has made a mistake, it is necessary that, to ensure the survival of the organization, he or she admits the mistake and moves forward. Organizations should develop their leaders, men and women alike, to have similar standards for understanding transgressions, so that they know when they have made a mistake and can apologize at the right time and in the right way. Organizations needs to establish a strong company culture and robust training program for employees and particularly for its leaders at all levels. These trainings will help them to understand the nature of transgression , the ability to accept and admit that they were wrong and finally to enable them to recover from the transgression.
Some men who are reading this might argue that they apologize all the time! And maybe that’s true. We are not arguing that men don’t apologize at all but what we are saying here is that we there is a gender apology gap. Men and women, equally, need to be able to appropriately recognize their mistakes in order to take corrective action!