Why Can’t Women Show Emotion at Work?

A few weeks ago I was pleased to be listening to Sam Roddick speak at a women’s conference. She was brilliant. The nub of her speech was that she ran her business in her own way, regardless of disapproval from others or traditional business models. And if that meant she showed emotion when she was upset, that was fine. She was upset so she showed it.

Men are allowed to get angry at work; that’s seen as acceptable. I get upset I cry. That’s not deemed acceptable. I say deal with it, or get therapy!”

She wasn’t talking about bursting into tears at inconsequential slights, not at all. She’s a very strong woman. She was talking about putting passion into what you do with your life and caring.

However, her way is not the accepted way of running a business. In the UK, business norms have been set by men. Male norms prevail and are rewarded, female behaviour is derided as ‘soft’ and not as effective.  Shows of emotion that aren’t anger are seen as a weakness. Many pioneer women in business had to behave like men and suppress their feminine side. Often this can penalise sensitive men as much as women. It’s bad enough for a woman to show her emotions; imagine what it’s like for a man in a macho world!

Diversity and Equality

We’ve moved on a lot and many new businesses have really good true equality policies which work in theory and practice (I’m thinking of Pepsico, for example, where difference is valued and equality doesn’t mean ‘allowing’ women to behave like men). The evidence is that where business values all its employees and has significant numbers of women in senior roles, the bottom line is better!

Yet I still find myself in coaching conversations with senior women struggling to survive in a macho culture which constantly undermines their contribution. Usually these women are working in long established business areas like banking, finance, and local government. Newer businesses, while not exempt, tend not to have a long history of  ‘We always do it this way; it’s worked up until now. Don’t rock the boat’

Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?

Because she’s a woman! And women bring other equally valid and valuable qualities to the workplace. And a workplace which doesn’t acknowledge and nurture that is missing out an a huge valuable resource! Eventually those senior women will find places where all they bring to work is valued and respected, where they don’t have to struggle to fit a male model of desirable manager or executive.

Share Your Story

I would love to hear from you if you have had experience of this. I’d love to know if it’s not an issue in your workplace, and if it is. I’d love to know how you think we can combat it, who your best supporters were, who inspires you, and any advice you’d care to share! (You can remain anonymous if you wish, if speaking out feels too risky).


Posted on November 30th, 2010 by

10 Responses to “Why Can’t Women Show Emotion at Work?”

  1. Hi Jane,
    I’ve worked in an office with teams of people and in a workshop where there’s just me. What I have experienced is that both men and women have their masculine and feminine sides. I’ve also found that men and women, as with every single individual, have some things they’re better at than others. For me, it’s mostly about recognising every individual’s potential – man or woman – and applying it to the common goal.

    • Jane says:

      Gee, thanks for the comment. I agree, we’re all different (thank heavens!) with different strengths. Unfortunately some organisations have sort of institutionalised blindness when it comes to taking an objective look at how they reward different types of behaviour. It doesn’t sound like you have ever experienced this, which is brilliant!

      Anita-Clare, hallo! I have often mused how different the business world might be if men had a ‘time of the month’ too! One thing is for sure, it wouldn’t be a taboo subject! Thanks for commenting.

  2. I have great empathy for this woman. I held very senior roles for most of my Publishing career and was constantly surrounded by men, who thought it acceptable to behave badly and then play the ‘ typical woman’ card if you dared to put up an argument. I have got angry at work and it was always justified. I tended not to show strong emotion because I refused to be labelled. When ever I have cried it has been out of frustration and anger – not because I’m upset or it’s ‘the time of the month’ sadly this is still seen as weakness! I greatly admire women in business, however, women who were meant to be my role-models sadly didn’t fit the bill – they were actually the bullies which is equally as sad!

  3. Yes Jane have experienced this in lots of jobs regardless of level. Men and women do generally express their emotions differently but often men don’t seem to be able to handle women’s emotions at all, whether it’s anger, tears or anything else. It does therefore make it harder for women to fully express themselves and deal with their emotions in a healthy way.

    On a postive note though, I remember watching the edition of Dragons Den with Kirsty Henshaw when after such positive feedback from the Dragons she became really emotional. It was heartening watching Peter Jones speak in a later program saying he say this as strength not a weakness!

  4. Mrs D says:

    It’s a real double edged sword as women who do climb to the top of a business and over the years honed their emotions so they never display them are then jumped all over as being hard and inhuman but they usually have to maintain this hard edge to break the glass ceiling.

  5. Holly says:

    As soon as a woman gets emotional, someone nearby is going to blame it on hormones. It never fails.

  6. les says:

    I absolutely hated working with women, it was all gossip, backstopping, drama, dilemma, powertrips and negativity. They drove me to councilling

  7. linda says:

    Until starting out in business on my own, I predominantly worked in a corporate setting with and alongside men, finding the women very competitive and ruthless in pursuit of their career goals – men were so much more helpful. The tide has now turned, I find the women entrepreneurs more reliable in terms of when they offer support, they follow through and they are extremely encouraging – the men make promises, which too often they somehow manage to forget!

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