A few years ago, I was talking with my husband about who he thought was more emotional at work in his experience: men or women. He said women, definitely. I said on the team I worked on and in general, I would say the men were more emotional. I asked my then boss what his opinion was, and he also said women. I then challenged him to think about our current team and who the most emotional person on our team was, and he had to agree with me that in that case, it was obviously a man. Yet he insisted he found women much more emotional than men in the workplace on average.
My own experience has been very different from theirs. As a woman who has led teams of roughly 1000-1500 people throughout most of my career, I have worked with a lot of executives of both sexes. On the whole, I have found that the men in my teams have been more needy, requiring validation and praise at a rate their female counterparts did not and reacting in a more defensive manner than women. They have also been more emotional about pay, asking for raises when performance hasn’t merited an increase. I’ve also found the men to be more sensitive to personal slights. By contrast, the majority of the women I’ve led have been open to feedback and even willing to brook personal embarrassment that would bring their male counterparts to their knees. They are far more likely to defer praise and to talk about teamwork rather than individual achievement, probably to their detriment. I have never, in over twenty years as an executive, encountered a man whose pay was unfairly below that of his peers (I have seldom encountered low paid men at all), but I have frequently found women in my teams whose pay was lower than their contribution merited–inequities I have addressed when I found them. In fairness, I have also managed a handful of overpaid women.
So is this just a simple case of men not relating to women and women not relating to men? I’m sure that’s one component. Men find male expressions of emotion more familiar and therefore more acceptable than they find female expressions of emotion, and perhaps the opposite is also true. Consider the ways in which emotions may be expressed in the workplace:
- Angry outbursts
- Tears of frustration or sadness
- Behavior under stress
- Expressing empathy
- Fear or nervousness
Studies show that the range for female expression that is acceptable is much more narrow than the range for men. One element at play is what has become known as the Heidi / Howard principle:
Researchers from Columbia’s Business School asked students to appraise the resume of an entrepreneur called Howard Roizen. His resume showed that Mr Howard had worked at Apple, launched his own software company and been a partner at a venture capital firm. He was a proficient networker and had very powerful friends including Bill Gates. Colleagues described him as a “catalyst” and a “captain of industry”. The students thought he’d be an excellent person to have within a company because he was someone who got things done and was likeable.
Now the interesting part of this experiment was that Mr Howard doesn’t exist.
When students were asked to review the true owner of the resume Ms “Heidi” Roizen they judged her to be more selfish and less desirable than Mr Howard, even though she was viewed as being equally as effective.
The Heidi / Howard study reveals the deep bias that exists in men’s favor and against women, a bias that is largely unexamined and subconscious. There is an assumption if a woman is successful, she’s a failure in other ways, she can’t be a good person or a good mother, or she doesn’t deserve her success. If a man is successful, the assumption is that he deserves his success and has worked hard for it, that he is inherently better (more skilled, more popular) than someone who is less successful. Of course, these are stereotypes, and hopefully they are shifting. One cause for this problem is lack of female representation at the highest levels in corporations. But another symptom is that the acceptable range of emotion for men and women differs. Consider this (BLUE = acceptable range of emotional expression; RED = unacceptable range):
On a scale of expressing SADNESS:
MEN: [sobbing]…[tearful]....[misty-eyed]…[tremulous voice]….[wistful]…[resolute]…[stoic]
WOMEN: [sobbing]…[tearful]…[misty-eyed]…[tremulous voice]…[wistful]…[resolute]….[stoic]
MEN: [serenity]….[smiling]…[laughter]…[hooting or cheering]…[punching the air/jumping]…[dancing]
WOMEN: [serenity]…[smiling]…[laughter]….[hooting or cheering]….[punching the air/jumping]…[dancing]
While these ranges doubtless differ by industry (some industries are more emotionally expressive by nature), the general observation is that a woman risks being labelled as “too” emotional in a wider range of emotional expression than does a man. A man who is “more” emotional is often seen as sensitive or particularly kind and empathetic. He may not be seen as having a “killer instinct,” but his expression is perfectly acceptable for a wide range of roles or opportunities. A woman expressing too much sadness runs the risk of being seen as too weak, but she also may be viewed as too cold (an ice queen) if she expresses too little emotion. A woman expressing too much joy may be seen as silly or a cheerleader rather than a serious professional, whereas high levels of enthusiasm on the part of a man may be seen as humorous and affable. And smiling too infrequently can be disastrous for a woman also because women are expected to be more positive than men. If you don’t believe this, why is “Resting Bitch Face” a big problem for Hillary but not for any of the hundreds of men who have run for president previously? How many times are women in the workplace told to smile vs. how many times men are told to smile?
The fewer women in positions of authority, the narrower the range of expression that is acceptable for women, and this is why it is so important that we have both male and female leaders represented in organizations that include both men and women.