“Don’t you worry, I’m not about to cry.” When a successful woman professional says this to her trusted peers, you can’t help but wonder, “What’s wrong with tears?” It’s 2016. People should no longer apologize for being emotionally expressive. Yet the stigma around tears is so deeply rooted that women with career aspirations hold back until they absolutely can’t. Bill Clinton LAW ’73 teared up at Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 concession speech, but she didn’t. The irony is when Mr. Obama tears up, he is the “sensitive” and “complete man,” while the weepy woman is an “emotional banshee.”
To me, this is personal. I cry approximately twice a day — no “out of control” emotion — just the equivalent of a smile or a scowl for many others. Tears show up and pass by. And despite using tissues frequently, I would qualify as a “successful” professional. But I continue to be struck by how ashamed women are made to feel for “crying in the workplace.”
Our cultural condescension towards tears is, for biological and social reasons, a bigger issue for women. While baby boys and girls cry the same amount, grown women cry much more than grown men. Studies show that testosterone inhibits crying while prolactin (in women) promotes it. Anatomically, men have larger tear ducts which help contain their tears. And sociologically, while men are trained to stunt their emotional expressions and penalized for tears, women are certainly not discouraged and might even be encouraged.
The phenomenon is especially intriguing given that in personal spaces, you wouldn’t be “woman enough” if you didn’t shed a few. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So what’s the objection to tears in the workplace?
Well, the stigma seems to be rooted in the belief that crying makes one unproductive. In fact, it is so deep-seated that many strong women believe that there is no place for tears in the workplace because they demonstrate vulnerability and could suggest a lack of control.
I get that any overwhelming emotion is distracting — whether tears or anger. So “out of control” emotions of all kinds, which disrupt harmony and productivity, are off the discussion table. But the particular workplace taboo against even moderate human expression through tears drives me to ask: Does this perceived lack of productivity stem from women’s inability to work through the tears? And do tears interfere any more than anger, frustration or aggression — the more comfortable expressions of emotion by men?
On the first question, there is a growing body of research to show that women’s productivity would be enhanced if they didn’t have to spend time and energy hiding their emotions. As Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg writes in “Lean In,” “I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. That kind of division probably never worked, but in today’s world, with a real voice, an authentic voice, it makes even less sense. I’ve cried at work. I’ve told people I’ve cried at work.” She doesn’t think it suggests in any way that she is not in control.
A large body of anecdotal evidence demonstrates that men view tears with such disdain because they feel queasy around women colleagues who cry. In parallel, years of inhabiting a work environment built by men, for men — has made anger and aggression far more acceptable than alien tears. In fact, anger is seen as an indication of passion towards the job and organizational goals.
Even more interestingly, men who cry in professional settings are seen as empathetic and not “too emotional” or “unprofessional.” Is it unfair then to ask that crying women be viewed the same way? If tears were genuinely worse for workplace productivity, there should have been a concerted effort to teach women to “manage their emotions.” In the absence of any evidence other than men’s discomfort, shouldn’t we work on reducing men’s discomfort instead of banishing tears?
Fortunately, the world seems to be changing for the better. In all conversations around leadership, there is a new appreciation for empathy, connectedness and vulnerability. And gender awareness is creating space and opportunity for parents to bring up boys who are emotionally expressive. Already, men today are twice as likely to cry in public than their fathers.
As I peek into the world of the future, where, I trust, stereotypes will be regarded with suspicion, and men and women will inhabit the workplace in more equal measure, tears will be as normal as being annoyed or aggressive … and we’ll no longer have to ask, “What’s wrong with tears?”
Anuradha Das Mathur is a Yale Greenberg World Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .