Of all the sentences that can set a room on fire, this is probably my favourite.
If you’re a woman, you’ve more than likely heard it addressed to yourself or to female colleagues at work more than to your male colleagues.
When I talk to women in tech- and male-orientated environments such as sales, I hear stories of how in meetings with customers, presenting to the board, or negotiating a deal, they have the feeling they are perceived as weak in comparison to male colleagues, and have to battle the assumption that they are less knowledgeable than their male counterparts in all areas of expertise.
Some of these perceptions are easily observable at meetings in terms of how much women speak at meetings, how many times they’re interrupted when they do, and how much of what they say is taken on board
One of the most ingrained stereotypes that persists in the workplace is that women are more emotional than men. When men show emotional behaviour in the workplace they’re often seen as passionate, but when women do the same they’re perceived as irrational or overreacting. And once the door to stereotyping is opened up a whole lot more comes along with it: such as that women are less able to control their emotions or to act logically and keep their head in situations when the stakes are high.
And where does all this come from? Not from the latest research.
Adriene Beltz and her colleagues followed 142 men and women for 75 days to learn about their emotions. Their research concludes that men are women are equally emotional, but their emotions are triggered by different stimuli.
One thing is certain. Regardless of gender, everybody in the workplace is afraid of emotions, especially when it comes to difficult conversations.
In every workshop I’ve delivered about difficult conversations, people refer to the fear that somebody might become too emotional. They mention people yelling, being rude, acting disrespectfully, not listening, becoming defensive.
The whole issue of handling emotions during a difficult conversation seems to be a big concern in the workplace, which might explain why people feel hurt when they’re told they’re too emotional.
A paper by Marshburn, Cochran, Flynn and Levine exploring the cost of workplace anger to women, irrespective of race, revealed that although both men and women do express anger in the workplace, men displaying this emotion are viewed as more competent at work than women doing the same.
For women to be taken seriously at work, they need to be perceived as competent and assertive, but at the same time women can’t violate the stereotype of being communal and cooperative, as otherwise they will be punished.
How this can be done? Isn’t it impossible? If women don’t show dominance they can’t lead, but if they do, they’re punished for not behaving according to female stereotyping.
Banihani, Lewis and Syed examined the question of whether work engagement is gendered. As a framework for their analysis they used the work of the organisational psychologist William Kahn, who developed the concept of three levels of employee engagement: meaningfulness, safety and availability.
Khan defined three questions that shape an employee’s engagement: How meaningful is for me to bring myself to work? How safe is it to do it? And how available am I to do so?
When Banihani, Lewis and Syed examined whether women and men experience psychological safety in the workplace in the same way, especially in environments traditionally associated with men’s values such as rationality, critical thinking and aggressiveness, they found that women are more readily labeled too emotional and penalized for it.
They concluded that women experience lower levels of psychological safety in male- and task-orientated environments.
Brescoll adds that women are penalized even more when the emotions they express are traditionally associated with dominance, such as anger or pride.
Brescoll and Uhlmann found that female leaders who expressed anger in a situation were more likely to be perceived as out of control than men, and as a consequence granted less status and power in the workplace. In the case of minority women this effect is amplified by racism.
When women at work are told that they’re too emotional, there is an additional connotation: that women have no emotional control.
And if one of the characteristics of effective leadership is the ability to control the emotions, when we tell a woman that she’s too emotional we open the door to a whole set of stereotypes that question women’s ability of lead.
Where does all this leave us?
A powerful way of improving workplace culture, inclusion and diversity and increase the level of psychological safety for women and minorities at work is to stop the labelling.
Someone telling a woman in the workplace that she’s too emotional is not making a neutral observation.
Very likely the observer is suffering from an unconscious bias and is not aware that he or she is not objectively assessing how women and men express emotions, especially when it comes to dominance emotions such as anger and pride.
When you feel you’re about to tell a woman that she’s too emotional, stop and ask yourself what you really want to say. How is a woman displaying emotions making you feel?
Stay curious and open to it for a moment.
Maybe an alternative is to be honest and, without guilt, to acknowledge our own limitations. We all use stereotypes, we all label, we all have unconscious biases. It’s part of being human.
You could say something along these lines:
“I might need a moment right now, because when I see a woman displaying X emotion at work a lot of old narratives and stereotypes kick off in my head. I need a bit of time out to put this together so I can continue this conversation in a way that’s safe and fair for us both.”
We can only create a more diverse and inclusive workplace if we’re brave enough to question our own narratives.