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Should It Be More Socially Acceptable For Women to Cry at Work?

There's a double standard here.


I sat at my desk, taking deep, slow breaths to staunch the surge of tears that threatened to expose me for who I really am: an emotional woman.

Like every young professional woman, it has been burned into my brain that I can’t cry in the workplace. But, while certainly not all women struggle with tears, I know I am not the only misty-eyed woman in America.

According to research by Dr. Kim Elsbach, professor of management at the University of California, Davis, women are significantly more likely to cry in the workplace (despite their best efforts to stem the tears) than men. Even Facebook COO Sheryle Sandberg admited in her address at Harvard Business School, “I've cried at work. I've told people I've cried at work...I talk about my hopes and fears and ask people about theirs.”

Before cell phones, e-mail and social media, the workplace was an island, cut off from our emotional world and a haven from our personal lives. But we now live in a world of increasing emotional transparency and in general enjoy a more relaxed work environment, including a more relaxed stance on emotional expression.

However, while clear rules have not yet been established, in practice it seems to me that there is a double standard when it comes to the show of workplace emotion. Rudeness, condescension, or sometimes even angry shouts are often viewed as an “understandable” show of frustration or strength, but tears or even just welling of the eyes, is more often labeled “unprofessional” and a display of weakness.

This double standard clearly promotes a stereotypically masculine ideal of emotion and it bodes ill for women who legitimately express emotion through tears. In fact, Elsbach's research indicates that women who cry at work suffer from severe embarrassment and feel they have hurt their chances of promotion when they emerge from the bathroom with puffy eyes and a splotchy face.

Interestingly, studies also show that while women are more likely to cry at work, we also are more likely to judge other women who cry. So I will put it to the ladies: should we be free to be emotionally transparent in the office, even if that means a tear or two, or should women continue to "man up" at work?

Photo via flickr user Gabriela Camerotti

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Monica Gabriel

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