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Assertive, Emotional, Authentic: Fighting Behavioral Stigmas Facing Women in the Workplace 

Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

December 05,2018

Men are allowed to be angry. Women are allowed to cry. But what happens when we flip the gender norms of emotional expression at work?

Someone asked me the other day what I think one of the main problems facing women in the workplace is. My answer? That we're over-qualified. The person looked at me as if I were from outer space ... until I explained what I meant.

I wasn't arguing that professional women generally have too much experience or skill for whatever positions they happen to hold, though that's probably true for many. I employed the word "qualified" in its secondary definition — to modify or limit. Women modify or limit their language and the way they present themselves all the time. They pepper their speech with phrases such as "Do you mind if," or "I'm sorry, but" or “this may be a stupid question,” as if their very presence or their efforts to do their work present an inconvenience or annoyance to others. They apologize constantly. It is the way too many of us have been socialized to behave — to make ourselves appear smaller, denying ourselves the right to take up more than the bare minimum of space in whatever rooms we may enter.

While women are busy squelching assertive tendencies, they're also keeping in check another behavior that's often considered a workplace taboo: being emotional. For men, the occasional angry outburst is quickly forgiven or even celebrated as a sign of how evolved, human and relatable the leader in question is. For women, engaging in such displays of emotion runs them the risk of being labeled "hysterical." But critics of such behavior would do well to remember that being in touch with your emotions — and being sensitive to those of others — can be a strength, not a weakness, in both women and men.

Study after study highlights the benefits of emotional intelligence, or EQ, in the workplace. Higher EQ has a positive correlation with leadership and job performance and a negative correlation with counterproductive work behavior and stress, according to the Harvard Business Review. I was heartened to see that some women have, in fact, embraced their own emotions in communicating with colleagues. After recently stepping down as CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi wrote a heartfelt goodbye letter, noting she felt "a surge of emotions" and expressing love and affection for her former employees. Jeneva Patterson, a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Brussels, Belgium, was upfront with her team about her tendency to cry. "I told the group, 'As you’ve started to see, when I’m really passionate about something I cry. I cry when I’m stressed, or in conflict, and also when I’m gratified,'" she wrote in a recent HBR article.

To truly achieve equality with men in the workplace, we cannot shrink from being assertive when our work calls for it.

I've been thinking about what happens when women hide their true selves, both their emotions and their ambitions, a great deal since the controversy over a great female tennis champion’s behavior at the recent US Open. In that case, the person dispensed with self-censorship entirely, calling the referee a "thief" and a "liar" after disagreeing with a penalty he'd handed down. She also broke her racket. Predictably, her behavior was described by some as "hysterical."

My own view is that she engaged in unsportsperson-like behavior. Still, I believe the notion that her outburst somehow was more shocking than those of male tennis players — the antics of John McEnroe, in particular, come to mind — reflects the antiquated idea that women must always be passive and unfailingly even-tempered, whether it's on the tennis court or in the boardroom. If it were broadly socially acceptable for women to be assertive and emotional, would this tennis great’s behavior have seemed as extreme?

To truly achieve equality with men in the workplace, we cannot shrink from being assertive when our work calls for it. And when a sad or disappointing development (or overwhelmingly happy news) causes an emotional response, we shouldn't have to stymie our feelings. We shouldn't hide our true ambitious, passionate, human selves from our teams and employers. We can establish new norms of workplace behavior by acting authentically and owning who we are.  No apologies necessary.

1. Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Yearsley, A. (2017, December 05). The Downsides of Being Very Emotionally Intelligent. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-downsides-of-being-very-emotionally-intelligent

2. >Nooyi, I. (2018, October 2). Parting Words as I Step Down as CEO. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/parting-words-i-step-down-ceo-indra-nooyi/

3. Patterson, J. (2018, August 28). Why Is Crying at Work Such a Big Deal? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/06/why-is-crying-at-work-such-a-big-deal

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Topics: Inclusion


Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

Hannah Grove is our chief marketing officer. She focuses on engaging our stakeholders in ways that differentiate and add value. She is also on a mission to eradicate jargon. Hannah is currently listening to the "Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s" podcast and Arcangelo Corelli.